THE BLOG

Labour's EU Policy: It's Brexit, Jim, But Not As We Know It

27/08/2017 13:20 BST | Updated 27/08/2017 21:04 BST
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

Staying in the Single Market, keeping freedom of movement rules, signing up to a customs union.

Labour's version of Brexit set out today doesn't sound much like, well, Brexit.

Many will of course be delighted the party has adopted a pro-EU stance on some key issues, while others will be ready to accuse Labour of betraying the result of the referendum.

The vast majority of people will just be relieved Labour has finally come up with a coherent position on the most complex and important political event to face the UK since the Second World War.

Scratch the surface of Sir Keir Starmer's latest proposals and actually you can find much in common with the Tories.

But let's start with the differences - and there is one fundamental divergence from the Government's position.

Labour wants to remain in the Single Market after March 2019 as part of a transitional deal, and that means allowing freedom of movement to continue.

This is a clear difference from the Tories, who want to leave the Single Market and end freedom of movement on March 2019.

Following on from that, Starmer even leaves the door open to the UK staying in the Single Market once a transitional period has ended - but with the caveat there is a "need for more effective management of migration".

Not an ending of free movement, not a reduction of numbers, but effective management.

This is a position which Labour's Chuka Umunna has been talking up, arguing there are tools available to the UK which the Government doesn't currently use in order to tackle some of the concerns over free movement - such as people moving to the UK without a job to come to.

It is undeniable to say that Labour's Single Market stance provides clear distance from the Tory position.

Another difference is the length of a transition period. Starmer gives no time frame in his article, instead saying it "will be as short as possible, but as long as is necessary." Brexit Secretary David Davis has talked about it being two years - at the most three.

But one area where Labour seems to be in agreement with the Tories is on the customs union. Starmer's piece is very clear that when it comes to an interim deal: "We would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU."

"A customs union" - not "the customs union".

Starmer - who as a former QC knows the importance of being precise with his language - repeats the phrase again in the article: "By remaining inside a customs union and the single market in a transitional phase..."

Is the use of the word 'a' instead of 'the' really that significant?

Yes - as it puts Labour in exactly the same position as the Tories.

In a paper on customs arrangements published earlier this month, it was made clear that the Government wanted a customs deal with the EU during the transition phase which is virtually identical to the current arrangement:

"This could involve a new and time-limited customs union between the UK and the EU Customs Union, based on a shared external tariff and without customs processes and duties between the UK and the EU."

There it is again: "a...customs union."

Why does that matter? Because staying in 'the' customs union means the UK can't negotiate its own trade deals with other countries. Creating 'a' customs union could give the UK that freedom. Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner has been almost as vociferous about the need to leave 'the' customs union as his Tory counterpart Liam Fox, saying that keeping the current arrangement after Brexit would be a "disaster".

If the front benches are in step on the customs union, they are locked in a passionate embrace of confusion when it comes to the Northern Ireland/Ireland border.

Starmer wants the UK to have more time to resolve the issue, because, as he points out: "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."

However, the plethora of ideas that Labour has on how to solve the problem must have been removed by the Observer editor before the article went to print.

Starmer also talks of a one-step transition from the current arrangements to any post-Brexit trading deal - something which is Tory policy - and criticises the Government for trying to negotiate a separate interim deal instead of focusing on the future trading partnership. Seeing as Labour's customs plans are identical to the Government's, unless they plan on unilaterally imposing them on the EU they too would also have to negotiate this interim arrangement with Brussels.

Despite the similarities with the Tories over the customs deal, Labour's latest Brexit position does now allow a real fight between the two parties in Parliament.

With May clinging on to power thanks to a deal with the DUP, Labour can work with anti-Brexit Tory backbenchers to bring about real change to Government policy by using the mere threat of rebellion - exactly the same tactics deployed by Conservative eurosceptics against David Cameron to get concessions to their cause.