Labour’s leadership clarify beyond any doubt that Brexit means a clean break from the Customs Union and Single Market

Labour’s leadership clarify beyond any doubt that Brexit means a clean break from the Customs Union and Single Market

For reasons I can’t quite fathom, the clearest enunciation yet of Labour’s policy on Brexit has garnered very little coverage in the mainstream media today.

For quite a while, there has been some confusion over the Labour Party’s formal position on the fundamentals of Brexit. Their election manifesto said that the party “accepts the referendum result” and included fluffy rhetoric about “a Brexit deal that works for every community in Britain”, but it went on to promise:

“We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.”

This led some to wonder whether (and in some cases hope) the party might yet seek to retain membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

My reading of the manifesto was that there was an implicit acceptance that this would not be possible. It promised that “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union” – something that membership of the Single Market and its indivisible four freedoms would not allow for.

The document also promised to “ensure that trade agreements cannot undermine human rights and labour standards… ensuring all new trade agreements include a commitment to support their [SME] market access needs… and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows” – again, promises that no government could keep if the country remained within the Customs Union, since the power to make trade agreements would remain at an EU level.

But over the weeks since the election there has been a lack of willingness from the Labour leadership explicitly to say all this. The party only whipped MPs to abstain on Chuka Umunna’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech’s which included a demand for “proposals to remain within the Customs Union and Single Market”, although three frontbenchers were fired by Jeremy Corbyn for backing it.

Yet in the ensuing weeks, various forms of words used in interviews by leading Labour figures have still left confusion as to what the party actually wants.

This weekend we inched closer to getting unequivocal answers as Jeremy Corbyn and Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, gave interviews to different outlets.

And today, finally, Barry Gardiner has heroically set it all out in black and white once and for all in a Guardian article headlined “Brexit means leaving the single market and the customs union” which is worth quoting at length. He begins by setting out his acceptance of the referendum result:

“I campaigned to stay in the EU, but as a democratic politician, I have to recognise that these objectives provide the benchmarks by which leave voters will judge the future trade relations we negotiate with the EU. Unless the new agreement delivers these objectives in substantial measure, we will find it difficult to justify the final result to the 52% who voted leave.”

He then explains why remaining inside the Single Market – the European Economic Area (EEA) – would be incompatible with Leavers’ four objectives:

“In the EEA, Britain would be obliged to keep the four freedoms, including the free movement of people, so no regaining control of our borders; align its regulatory regime with the EU’s – so no regaining sovereignty (in fact we would no longer have a seat at the table so there would actually be a reduction of sovereignty); follow ECJ rulings; and still pay into the EU budget. The UK would technically not be a member of the EU, but we would in effect become a vassal state: obliged to pay into the union’s budget while having even less sovereignty than we do now – no longer able to appoint commissioners, sit on the EU council to have a say in how we determine our regulations and laws, or appoint British judges to the ECJ to adjudicate disputes. The 52% would almost certainly consider this a con.”

So that’s Single Market membership ruled out without a shadow of a doubt. And he goes on:

“Some have suggested we should retain membership of the customs union, the benefits of which extend to goods rather than services, and establish common import tariffs with respect to the rest of the world. But that is not possible. The only members of this union are the member states of the EU, and they alone have negotiating power. Other countries such as Turkey have a separate customs union agreement with the EU. If we were to have a similar agreement, several things would follow: the EU’s 27 members would set the common tariffs and Britain would have no say in how they were set. We would be unable to enter into any separate bilateral free trade agreement. We would be obliged to align our regulatory regime with the EU in all areas covered by the union, without any say in the rules we had to adopt. And we would be bound by the case law of the ECJ, even though we would have no power to bring a case to the court. As a transitional phase, a customs union agreement might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive. It would preclude us from making our own independent trade agreements with our five largest export markets outside the EU (the US, China, Japan, Australia and the Gulf states).”

He even cites examples of the negative consequences of remaining in the Customs Union:

“Were, say, the EU to negotiate an agreement with the US that was in the union’s best interests but against our own, our markets would be obliged to accept American produce with no guarantee of reciprocal access for our own goods into the US. Turkey faces precisely such an asymmetry with Mexico, with which the EU negotiated an agreement 20 years ago. Turkey still faces a 20% tariff on its clothing goods exported to Mexico, while it imports Mexican cars on a tariff-free basis.”

He concludes that UK’s relationship with the EU going forward cannot be based on “inappropriate existing bodies such as the EEA or the customs union”, but that the government must rather “develop a bespoke agreement based on what both sides need” with a vision that reassures the country that “the friction-free access into the single market that we have enjoyed for so long can in large part be maintained”.

As a senior member of the shadow cabinet who was named during the election as one who would be part of a Labour Brexit negotiating team, Gardiner is unquestionably setting out policy as agreed by the party leadership. Members of the shadow cabinet do not write articles for the Guardian on a whim without the clearance of the leader’s office. Chuka Umunna and his minority of referendum-denying colleagues on the Labour backbenches may not like it, but a clear policy has now been stated once and for all.