Each week that passes takes us closer to March 2019, the deadline by which Britain must have negotiated a transitional exit deal with the European Union, or face the economic catastrophe of falling off a cliff-edge. Yet, as the clock has ticked, confusion has reigned. The 14 months since the EU referendum have been characterised by rhetorical posturing, fuzzy logic and position papers peppered with contradictions and questionable assertions. The country’s two main parties have hedged their bets and ducked and dived in relation to the great dilemmas posed by Brexit, rather than engage in a rational and honest conversation about how to pursue the national interest in extraordinary times.
So today’s intervention by Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, is to be welcomed as a significant development. Writing in the Observer on behalf of the Labour party, Starmer states unequivocally that Labour would seek to keep Britain in the single market and a customs union during a transitional period, and possibly in the longer term. This is not yet a worked-through negotiating strategy. But it represents a pragmatic shift towards the only conceivable transitional arrangement Britain should be seeking, and puts clear water between the two main parties for the first time. Theresa May’s government insists that in 2019 Britain must leave both the single market and customs union.
Until now, Labour’s Brexit policy has lacked clarity. The party’s recent election manifesto pledged to put the economy first by retaining the benefits of the single market, while also promising to end freedom of movement. How that happy end-state was to be achieved was, to put it kindly, not spelt out.
This evasiveness undoubtedly served Labour well in the general election. But it has undermined the party’s ability to hold the government to account for its own shambolic approach to Brexit. It is also politically unsustainable, this far into the Brexit process, when shadow ministers are unable to articulate or agree on what Labour actually thinks.
Now Labour has at last made a choice and deserves credit for adopting the only short-term position that makes sense. Negotiating a transitional deal is all but impossible to achieve within 18 months, given that talks on the deal cannot even start until the UK and EU have reached agreement on three complex and contentious issues: the financial bill Britain will owe the EU on exit; the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the EU, and who will oversee them; and arrangements for the Irish border. Any deal will also require unanimous support from every other EU nation, and ratification by both the European parliament and European council.
British negotiators should be focusing on the immediate and critical substantive issues, such as the Irish border, then turning their minds to the long-term settlement; not wasting time and energy on the impossible task of negotiating a transitional deal. This means, as Labour suggests, we must seek to keep all our economic arrangements and relationships with the EU intact for a period after we give up membership of the EU’s political club. This is necessary to allow the time and space to negotiate a final deal. Yes, keeping the economic status quo, while giving up our power to shape the rules that govern it, is very much a second best to full membership of the EU. But there is no way round that.
A transition period, by definition, comes to an end. What comes next? Here, Labour has also markedly shifted its tone. Starmer explicitly leaves open the door to remaining in the single market and a form of customs union, so long as a final deal includes arrangements for managing migration more effectively. This is, for now, a sensible position: Britain may well have more luck negotiating some more significant brakes on freedom of movement now than David Cameron did prior to the referendum. The EU today is more self-confident and less blighted by existential fears than the EU of two years ago, thanks to an economic upturn and the failure of far-right nationalists such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to gain power.
Labour has clarified its stance and opted for a Brexit approach that is practical. Compare and contrast with the Conservatives’ chaotic journey without maps. In recent days, ministers have published several position documents intended to clarify Britain’s negotiating strategy for a transitional deal. Together they give the impression of a government that continues to cling to the fantasy that Britain can, in the now notorious words of Boris Johnson “have its cake and eat it”. Philip Hammond and Liam Fox jointly wrote two weeks ago that Britain will leave both the single market and the customs union at the end of the Article 50 process. But there is no realistic acknowledgement in these papers of the gigantic difficulties that this would create. On issues from the Irish border to customs arrangements, the government has simply stated what it wants, no matter how unfeasible its demands. There was, at least, a significant concession on the European court of justice: the government seems to have conceded that the UK will continue to be affected by EU law.
The government’s approach so far to the historic question of Brexit borders on the irresponsible. Yet, still, ministers continue the deceitful charade, while every day the uncertainty deepens for businesses making investment decisions and EU citizens living in this country. Last week the government celebrated a report indicating falling immigration figures. But those statistics are in fact a sign of a spluttering economy in which industries such as food production are suffering from a lack of workers and the NHS is unable to recruit enough doctors and nurses. New research from KPMG suggests that this is the shape of things to come, with significant numbers of younger, better-educated and better-paid EU nationals considering leaving the UK.
That Labour has finally screwed its courage to the sticking place on Brexit could be a game-changing moment. Next month the EU withdrawal bill returns to parliament for its second reading. The bill’s provisions on the European court of justice would effectively make Labour’s transitional proposal to stay in the single market all but impossible. So, not before time, battle must and will be joined in the House of Commons. It’s now down to moderate, pragmatic Conservative MPs to break ranks and rally behind Labour to bring some sanity and realism to the Brexit process. If this parliament votes to sacrifice Britain’s economic interests on the altar of Conservative party unity, history will not remember it fondly.