Britain’s Labour Party in major policy shift on Brexit
Party seeks UK membership of Single Market and Customs Union during transition period
Sir Keir Starmer: he said maintaining the status quo for a few years would provide more time to resolve the question of the Northern Ireland Border. Photograph: PA
Labour has made a dramatic shift in its policy on Brexit, calling for Britain to retain full membership of the European Single Market and Customs Union for up to four years after it leaves the EU. Britain is scheduled to quit the union in March 2019.
The party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the transition period, during which Britain would continue to accept free movement of EU citizens, should be “as short as possible but as long as necessary”.
Writing in the Observer, Sir Keir said that Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms of Britain’s current relationship with the rest of the EU.
“That means we would seek to remain in a Customs Union with the EU and within the Single Market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both.”
Sir Keir said that remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union during a transition period would offer British businesses greater certainty and more time to prepare for a new relationship with the EU. And he said maintaining the status quo for a few years would provide more time to resolve the question of the Northern Ireland Border.
“Labour is clear that this extremely serious issue must not be rushed, and that a considered agreement needs to be reached that prevents a hard Border and has support from all communities. The government’s policy paper on this was incredibly light on detail, and gave precious little reason to believe this will be resolved satisfactorily by March 2019.”
Sir Keir said it was unlikely that Britain would remain permanently in the Single Market after Brexit unless the EU agreed to change the rules on free movement of people.
Conservative prime minister Theresa May’s government wants Britain to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union when it leaves the EU in March 2019, but to negotiate a brief transition period during which most of the current trading arrangements would remain unchanged.
The Conservatives on Sunday accused Labour of confusion over Brexit, saying the latest policy was the party’s tenth on the issue since Jeremy Corbyn became leader.
“The truth is Labour have no idea what they want, and this is a weak attempt to kick the can down the road. Their leader can’t say they would end unlimited freedom of movement, they can’t decide whether we are leaving the Single Market and they have no vision for what Britain should look like outside the EU,” a Conservative spokesman said.
“This week we will be heading out to negotiate a deal with the EU that avoids unnecessary disruption to people and businesses, and allows the UK to grasp the opportunities of Brexit. Labour are still arguing from the sidelines.”
Labour went into last June’s general election with a deliberately ambiguous policy on Brexit, calling for Britain to retain the benefits of the Single Market without saying if it should remain part of it.
Since the election Mr Corbyn has suggested that Britain will automatically leave the Single Market and the Customs Union when it leaves the EU. And he sacked three members of the shadow cabinet who voted in favour of a parliamentary amendment in June calling for Britain to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union, rather than following the party whip by abstaining.
Labour’s policy shift comes as MPs prepare to debate the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill when they return to Westminster next week after the summer recess.
The Liberal Democrats said on Sunday they would test Labour’s resolve by proposing an amendment calling for Britain to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union.
“This bill is a chance to take a wrecking ball to the extreme Brexit agenda being pursued by this government. Labour needs to make up its mind whether it is with the Conservatives, seeking to take us out of the Single Market and Customs Union, or with the Liberal Democrats who want to protect jobs by remaining inside,” said Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake.
“We will use every opportunity to defend Britain’s membership of the Single Market and Customs Union on which so many people’s jobs and living standards rely.”