Labour’s Shifty before Brexit Negotiations?
The third round of Brexit negotiations continues today in Brussels, with David Davis, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, expected to press EU officials to move on with the discussions on future trade relations. Talks will begin at 5pm Brussels time on Monday and conclude on Thursday.
Over three and a half days of meetings, the Brexit bill would remain a thorny issue. Unless the UK agrees to indicate how it will meet its financial obligations, Brexit talks could fall apart. While the UK side insists on addressing the future relation with the EU first, EU officials prefer starting the discussions with the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border, before they move on to trade.
As an EU official warned, “If you leave big, sensitive political issues to the end of the negotiations – such as the financial settlement – you increase the risk of failure.” Speaking to the Guardian, one EU diplomat said: “the major sticking point and the biggest obstacle to making progress….The UK government does not want to be too clear because they are afraid of the hard Brexiteers.”
A UK government source explained that Michel Barnier’s EU Brexit negotiating team has drafted a paper on the UK’s Brexit bill and that “We are waiting for them to produce a proper legal analysis that can be interrogated line by line.” The source also said: “Fundamentally, this is a negotiation – we don’t want to pay anything more than what we owe – but it’s a discussion that needs to be based on the facts. They produced a paper. We want analysis, justification and facts.”
In the meantime, Labour’s U-turn to support single market access has been welcomed by some Tory MPs who believe that this might put further pressure on the government to soften its hard Brexit position. For them, Corbyn is still playing games, but for others, like Ukip supporters, he is betraying his principles. Nonetheless, this is a significant shift that separates Labour from a hard Brexit and would force Theresa May to commit to her own version of Brexit.
Labour has finally posited itself as the party of soft Brexit. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer announced in an Observer article on Saturday, that Labour will support full participation in the single market and customs union during a long transitional period that may last up to four years after the UK’s official departure from the EU. The Labour party also leaves open the possibility that after the transitional period, the UK could remain a member of the customs union and the single market.
This threatens May’s position and might seduce pro-EU Tory MPs to support Labour and rebel against their own party. But is also a welcome move by many, since Labour has been criticised for so long for not having a clear position on Brexit.
The Labour party’s U-turn was attacked by Daily Mail’s Brexit gatekeepers. Peter Oborne wrote that Corbyn’s decision to support membership of the European single market beyond March 2019 is “an act of grotesque hypocrisy.” It is a hypocrisy because Corbyn has always been a Eurosceptic and that “to allow the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, to write an article in The Observer yesterday making it clear that, under a Labour government, the UK would continue to abide by the EU’s free movement rules, accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on trade and economic issues and pay into the EU budget for a ‘transitional period’ after Brexit is a repudiation of everything he has ever personally believed.” Oborne found that this shift betrays Labour’s voters who voted for Brexit.
At the same time, he recognised that the inability of Theresa May to explain what Brexit means and, particularly, what this would mean for the City and businesses, has left May and the Tory party “desperately split” between those who want a soft and hard Brexit. Labour’s shift enables Corbyn’s party to “establish itself as the party of ‘soft Brexit.’”
Basically, Oborne calls for the PM to make a clear choice. To choose a hard or soft Brexit, and choose soon, because the clock is ticking: “She can come down on the same side as Philip Hammond, big business, the Remainers — and now Jeremy Corbyn — and opt for a soft Brexit. Or she can support Boris Johnson, Tory activists, and the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit.”
For Oborne, Labour’s shift can also be translated into a conspiracy to halt and sabotage Brexit.
But for others, Labour needs to go even further and commit wholeheartedly to staying within the single market. Heidi Alexander, a Labour Remainer, appeared on Channel 4 News and called for Labour to fight to stay in the single market and customs union: “I’m pleased by what we’ve heard today and as much as it’s a very necessary statement for us to be staying in the single market and customs union for transition but whilst I welcome it I’m not entirely sure it’s sufficient. I think the Labour party should be unequivocally arguing to stay in the single market and customs union and not be seeking to delay a hard Brexit.”
Alexander explained that the British people who voted for Brexit “were sold a pup” and that many of us believed “there would be an extra £350million a week for the NHS, which hasn’t materialised.” She also pointed out the lies that have been said in the beginning, and how such positions have been changed: “We were told that we would be free from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which the Government has now admitted is not possible. We have been told there’s a golden economic future out there for us when the reality is that a number of businesses are saying that they are looking at moving their operations overseas.”
However, Corbyn and Starmer’s change of mind, has upset certain Labour MPs who believe that this U-turn would alienate their voters who want greater immigration control. But committing to a particular view might be the most advantageous move for both Labour and Tory parties, since it will put more pressure on Theresa May to articulate a clear plan for Brexit and reinforce her position.