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Labour aim to reset tone on Brexit starting with rights of EU citizens in UK

Labour’s position appears to be getting as “soft a Brexit as possible”. And to do that, Starmer says we need to be “smart” and “flexible”.


Labour has been criticised heavily for not having a clear and coherent strategy on Brexit. It was always a tough one for a party with a leader whose own views seemed unclear from the outset. It is also a party with constituencies that strongly voted to leave and constituencies that strongly voted to remain. Today, Labour aimed to change that view by setting out a new Brexit strategy.

Labour shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer set out the party’s new Brexit strategy at a speech in Westminster today. The highlight of which is a unilateral guarantee to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.

Unilateral guarantee for EU citizens living in UK

For many – particularly those who voted to remain – Labour’s Brexit policy so far hasn’t differed enough from the Tory government’s policy. This wasn’t helped by the three-line whip imposed by the leadership on MPs to vote through an unamended Article 50 bill. But today, Starmer showed a clear difference in position on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK saying that Labour would unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK from the outset. This is something the Tory government has continually refused to do insisting that it would risk the rights of British citizens living in the EU.

However, there seems little justification for the Tory position. The EU works on the basis of obligations and reciprocity. Ultimately, the only danger to the rights of British citizens living in the EU is what the UK government proposes for EU citizens living in the UK. The EU’s draft negotiating guidelines also show that the EU will be pushing for all those affected citizens to have the same rights as they do now.

A “meaningful vote” on a final deal and return to negotiating table if rejected

As well as guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK, Starmer said that Labour would also guarantee a “meaningful vote” for parliament on the deal. He added this should be held in Autumn 2018 so that there was time for ministers to go back to negotiations if necessary.

What happens if a deal is rejected is still unclear. Labour is clear that “no deal” is not viable but has also not left staying in the EU on the table.

A reformed single market and customs union membership and “managed migration”

On this issue too, Labour’s position still seems a little unclear. Starmer says that Labour want a “smart” and “flexible” Brexit. He contrasts this with Theresa May’s “rigid” and “reckless” approach. If anything, arguing against a “rigid” and “reckless” Brexit makes a good soundbite.

Starmer said the prime minister’s approach “takes all of the options off the table before she starts”. He added that this gave her “very little to play with in the negotiations”. Here’s Starmer as quote in the Guardian’s politics live blog from his interview this morning with the BBC’s Today programme:

The prime minister, people say she has got a clear approach. But it is an approach that takes all of the options off the table before she starts. That is actually a very rigid approach, it’s a reckless approach, and it gives her very little to play with in the negotiations …

It is said often that Labour has got a nuanced position on this. We want to be smart, we want to be flexible. We see that in the most important negotiation since the second world war being rigid and reckless is going to lead to a far worse result.

Keir Starmer, Labour shadow Brexit secretary

The government has taken the position of prioritising immigration control over the economy hence its acceptance that Britain cannot retain single market membership. For Labour, jobs and the economy are Labour’s top priority suggesting the party was more willing to be flexible on immigration. But in responding to questions after his speech, Starmer said that accepting free movement as it stands is not acceptable. He said this is because the vote to leave was a vote for “managed migration”.

Labour’s answer to resolving the single market/free movement impasse is negotiating a “reformed membership of the single market and customs union”, which implies pushing for a reformed free movement framework. And if that’s not possible, they would effectively fall back to the government’s strategy of pushing for a free trade deal…

Whether this is best achieved through reformed membership of the single market and the customs union or via a bespoke trading arrangement is secondary to the outcome. What matters for jobs, the economy and living standards is that we retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union.

Keir Starmer, Labour shadow Brexit secretary

Whilst the extent to which we can access the single market on a tariff-free basis is up for negotiation, research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research shows that a free trade deal with tariff-free access for goods would be nowhere near as fruitful as single market membership. So a free trade deal would not deliver the “exact same benefits” that Brexit secretary David Davis suggested it could and what Labour is pushing for.

Is a reformed free movement framework possible? Labour thinks so or it at least thinks it’s worth pursuing. But it’s not just the EU Labour has to convince, it’s also the British people. Perhaps this is all part of the “smart” and “flexible” approach Labour is taking. It’s not just a way to approach EU negotiations, it’s also a way to approach Brits who feel strongly that immigration is an issue.

Meanwhile, their position on the customs union is that staying in it should remain an option. This would mean that Britain couldn’t negotiate our own trade deals but I’m not convinced there is that much advantage to being able to do so when compared to the trade we can do with the EU and through its trade deals. Even, our “friends” in the USA are prioritising trade with the EU over Britain.

Staying in the customs union would also solve the the border issue in Ireland. There wouldn’t be one. The threat of long waits at the border for lorries transporting goods between the UK and EU will also be reduced.

An EU Rights and Protections bill instead of a Great Repeal bill

Instead of a Great Repeal bill, Labour is proposing an EU Rights and Protections bill. This suggests that it would protect the rights and protections we currently have on issues including the environment, employment and consumer rights. His comments go further to say that they would work with the EU, trade unions and businesses to ensure that the UK did not “lag behind Europe in workplace protections or environmental standards in future”.

Of course, as a member of the EU, we help set those rules.

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