26 February 2018

Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for Brexit blurs — and sometimes crosses — a number of the Government’s red lines. But the small print means it is far from clear that his “bespoke” Brexit would be more negotiable with the EU than the Prime Minister’s, argues Jill Rutter.  

The Government is making us wait until Friday for the detail of what was really agreed in the drawing room at Chequers last Thursday. No wonder, then, that the Chequers aftermath has been dominated by Labour repositioning from Keir Starmer and now Jeremy Corbyn. The domestic political benefits of his move are clear – but has he moved Labour into a position the EU might accept?

Labour is prepared to cross some of the Prime Minister’s red lines

Corbyn used his speech to make a number of digs at the “ideological” approach to Brexit being taken by the Government. By contrast, Labour was not obsessed with leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – meaning that it is perfectly willing for the UK to continue participating in EU bodies such as the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemicals Agency and to stay inside the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

The case is a pragmatic one: Labour sees no benefit in divergence and wants to retain the option of supporting individual agencies “rather than paying more to duplicate those agencies here.”

Labour is also ready to cross the Government's red line about running an independent trade policy. Indeed, Corbyn displays zero enthusiasm for the vision of trade deals with China or the US (no to eating chlorinated chicken and TTIP-style threats to open up the NHS to privatisation). That in turn opens the way to being part of a customs union with the EU, to preserve cross-border supply chains.

Labour has its own set of demands for special treatment

Yet off-the-shelf models have no more appeal for Labour than for the Government. In language that could (and maybe did) appear in a speech by the Prime Minister, Corbyn explained that Britain will indeed need a bespoke, negotiated relationship with the EU.

First, he declared, we would be part of a new customs union to allow tariff-free trade with the EU and so support those integrated supply chains. But that new “customs arrangement” would “need to ensure that the UK has a say in future trade deals.” That would put us in a much better place than the Turks: they have to open up their markets when the EU does a new free trade agreement – but without any guarantee of reciprocation.

There may be some willingness to concede greater consultation for the UK on future trade – but would the EU be prepared to give us a seat at the table, if the UK made that a condition of a new customs deal? Is that what Labour wants when it says the UK has to be “given a say”?

Labour also wants to retain “the benefits of the single market”. But it “would not countenance a deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others.” This appears in the section on external trade policy - but seems to apply with as much force to decision-making within the single market. Would Labour be happy with a Norwegian-style shaping of decisions? Or is Corbyn arguing for a bigger role?

Though it wants the benefits of the single market, Labour also wants to ensure that the single market does not become an obstacle to the economic policy of a Corbyn government. There are big debates over how far EU rules would really get in the way of renationalisation and industrial support (the UK is unique in the extent to which it relies on private enterprise).

Nonetheless, Corbyn wants to negotiate special carve-outs to make sure rules from Brussels do not get in the way: “We would also seek to negotiate protections, clarifications or exemptions where necessary in relation to privatisation, public sector competition directives and procurement rules and the posted workers directive.”

Given that the EU is already worried that the UK, sitting outside the single market, will tilt its “level playing field” on state aid, it’s very unlikely to give Labour a carte blanche while the UK retains all the benefits of the single market.

Labour is still committed to ending free movement

For all Jeremy Corbyn is prepared to cross Theresa May’s red lines, there is one where he stands with her in solidarity – the need to end free movement “as a statement of fact” when we leave the EU. Will the EU be prepared to accept an immigration policy based “on fair rules and the reasonable management of migration” as a substitute?

So far, the one thing the 27 EU member states have been united on is the indivisibility of the four freedoms – and the EU might well push back. It could tell the UK to use the powers it has under existing rules to manage migration. Such use, the EU could argue, would reduce movement as a matter of practice, without ending it as a “statement of fact.” That, of course, might be a bridge too far for Labour’s leave voters.

The EU will turn more fire on the Prime Minister’s speech

There is plenty in the Corbyn speech for the EU negotiators to dislike. If Labour were in government, Corbyn would be accused of cherry-picking and cake-ism. But the tone  and being in opposition  means he is likely to get an easier ride as the EU waits for Friday.

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