By Charlotte King
Last week, Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer unveiled that Labour wants the UK to permanently remain within the EU’s customs union post-Brexit. This decisive stance taken by Labour is one which undoubtedly puts pressure on Theresa May to deliver a “soft” Brexit.
The customs union is different from the single market, neither of which Theresa May wants the UK to be a part of following Brexit. The single market provides the free movement of goods, services, capital and people throughout member states, whereas the customs union is concerned with ensuring that once goods clear customs in one member state, they can be transported to other member states without imposing further tariffs.
In his speech in Coventry on Monday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke about why Labour backs remaining in the customs union. Corbyn said that following Brexit, Labour supports forming a new customs union deal with the EU to allow “full access to the European markets”, and to “maintain the benefits” of being in the single market without impediments upon trade, rights, standards and protections.
Labour supports being part of a customs union because believes it means a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can be avoided, which Corbyn believes raises concerns about the future of the Good Friday peace accord.
Starmer says nobody can provide an answer on how to avoid a hard border without remaining in a customs union, and also advocates that being in a customs union with the EU is “important for our manufacturing base”.
This decisive policy position is significant, and is interpreted as a move by Labour to side with the Tory rebels who also want to remain in a customs union. This puts further pressure on Theresa May, who is already facing difficulties from the existing divisions among the Conservative party regarding Brexit strategies.
Some fear this move could force the government to change their stance on Brexit to favour a more “soft” approach, rather than their current “hard” Brexit attitude.
The Conservative Party has responded to Labour’s support of staying in a customs union, saying it is “a cynical attempt” by the party to “play politics with our country’s future”. Liam Fox, the Secretary of International Trade, says this move by Labour “doesn’t respect the result of the referendum”.
Fox also advocates that the UK would be better off outside of a customs union, because anticipates 90% of global growth in the coming years will come from outside of the EU. By being outside of a customs union, the UK can strike their own trade deals with non-EU countries post-Brexit.
However, Starmer argues that there is no “credible analysis” proving the UK will fare better on its own. He says all we want are trade agreements, and “we will be more likely to get them if we do it jointly with the EU [than] on our own”.
Corbyn has faced criticism from over 80 Labour seniors on the decision to support remaining in a customs union. This includes Lord Mandelson and Lord Kinnock, who are calling upon Labour to commit to their stance of wanting to stay in the single market too. Corbyn believes though that if the UK forms a customs union deal with the EU, we can maintain a “close relationship” with the single market without being limited by its rules and regulations.
Starmer says that following Labour’s support of a customs union, this is “crunch time” for May because “the majority of parliament does not back her approach and…it will be heard sooner rather than later”. Fox states that the government is delaying voting on a trade bill because fears losing its position, and a loss could lead to another election. The PM is speaking on Friday to convince Tory rebels to support a “hard” trade deal.
Speaking in Coventry, Corbyn said that ultimately Labour “will not support any Tory deal that would do lasting damage to jobs, rights and living standards”. He advocates Labour is “looking for a Brexit that puts the working people first”, which can be achieved by the UK remaining in a customs union.