by Frank Schnittger
Sun Aug 27th, 2017 at 12:26:45 PM EST
At last the British Labour party has decided to do what oppositions are supposed to do and put clear blue water between its policy on Brexit and that of the Tories:
Labour is committing itself to continued UK membership of the EU single market and customs union during a transition period following the official Brexit date of March 2019.
In a dramatic policy shift, the party's shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer has announced that a Labour government would abide by "the same basic terms" of Britain's current EU membership during the transition, which some observers expect to last as long as four or five years.
And in an article for the Observer, he made clear that the party is open to the possibility of negotiating new single market and customs union terms which the UK could sign up to on a permanent basis.
At June's general election, Labour promised to seek to "retain the benefits" of the single market and customs union as part of a "jobs-first" Brexit, but leader Jeremy Corbyn has so far stopped short of committing to continued membership beyond the date of Brexit.
It remains to be seen whether Labour's policy shift is purely tactical - to wrong foot the Tories - or a long term change of policy. It is also questionable whether the EU would agree to the UK maintaining membership of the Single Market and Custom's union without considerable access payments - something not alluded to in Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer Observer interview.
What seems clear, however, is that Labour has now put itself in a position to unambiguously oppose the hard Brexit favoured by PM Theresa May and her Brexit team, which makes it more likely that a hard Brexit deal (or a no deal Brexit) would not be approved by parliament in due course.
In addition, by raising the possibility of an indefinite future membership of the Single Market and customs union, Labour puts the whole rationale for Brexit in doubt. What is to be gained from having to adhere to all the same rules that it currently does, without having a direct say in their development?
At the very least, Labour's new position would, if adopted, by the UK, put any final Brexit beyond the term of the current parliament, and thus amenable to reversal by the next, always assuming the EU would agree to such a long term extension of the A50 negotiation period. Given that that would require the unanimous agreement of the European Council, the prospects of that scenario must seem doubtful at best.
But what if the actual Brexit deal, approved by Westminster parliament and by qualified majority vote in the EU Council, provided for (say) 5 years continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union after which both parties could agree to "review" the deal, with the review including all options, including all options up to and including full membership of the EU? The UK would, in essence have left the EU for a trial period with the option of returning without having to go through the full A49 membership application process which requires unanimous EU Council approval.
There is a long tradition of Parliament not being able to bind future parliaments, so it could be argued that such a clause would simply keep all options on the table for a future Parliament. The Brexiteers will scream betrayal, of course, and it is difficult to see how Theresa May's government could reverse course to such a degree without her losing the leadership, and quite probably, the Tories losing office.
So any scenario which might result in Labour's new position actually becoming a real possibility depends on the Tory's hard Brexit deal (or no deal) being voted down by Parliament first. Closet Remainers within the Tory camp would have to grow some backbone and vote against to overturn her narrow majority. Sinn Fein are also coming under increasing pressure to end their historic policy of abstentionism in Westminster to tip the balance further towards a May defeat...
But Labour's new policy also has the potential to undermine May's negotiating position in Brussels. Why should Brussels make concessions to May to make it easier for her to sell her Brexit deal to Parliament? Best to be as hard line as possible, offer her a terrible deal, and wait for her slim Parliamentary majority to implode. Force May to sell her self imposed "no deal" option to parliament, and if necessary to the British people in a new general election.
After all, what has the EU got to lose? Worst case, the UK is gone anyway once the A50 period elapses, so give them as little as possible and make exiting the EU utterly unattractive for any future discontented EU member. Best case, when faced with the abyss, a chastened UK comes back into the fold. It's "have cake and eat it" strategy exposed for the utter sham it always was. What's not to like?