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UK opposition Labour Party makes dramatic shift on EU single market and customs union

Britain's Labour Party has announced it backs the UK staying in the EU single market and customs union during a "transition period" after Brexit. The change in the policy comes days before the next round of Brexit.

In an article published by the Guardian and Observer newspapers on Sunday, the opposition Labour Party's Brexit secretary Keir Starmer indicated a government led by his party would seek a transitional deal to stay in the EU single market and the customs union for several years.

Starmer lamented the "glacial pace of progress in the first two rounds of talks," and said: "Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU. That means we would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both."

David Davis, Brexit minister has been criticized for ineffectual negotiating skills in his dealings with the EU's Michel Barnier.

Brexit minister David Davis has been criticized for ineffectual negotiating skills in his dealings with the EU's Michel Barnier.

A Labour Party "soft" Brexit could see Britain continuing to pay into the EU for many years to come.

Staying in the customs union and the single market in a transitional phase would allow British goods and services to flow into the EU "without tariffs, customs checks or additional red tape," Starmer wrote, without setting up "complex alternative customs or trading relations."

This would be "hugely advantageous" for British business and consumers, Starmer wrote and would also "safeguard the important social protections and rights that come from being within the single market."

End destination

Starmer said "remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour."

The Labour Party change in outlook came just days ahead of the next round of talks between the EU's Michel Barnier and the UK government's Brexit minister, David Davis, and amid signs of a weakening UK economy as its currency falls against the euro.

The move appeared to signal an end to months of uncertainty and division within the Labour Party, with the new plan forming the basis of an appeal by controversial leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to defeat current Prime Minister Theresa May in an election.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with Prime Minister Theresa May at the opening of parliament in June.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with Prime Minister Theresa May at the opening of Parliament in June.

Irish backing

Earlier this month, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar suggested during his first visit to Northern Ireland  an EU-UK customs union and a transition period for the UK as a way of keeping an economic border open in Ireland after Brexit.

"If the United Kingdom does not want to stay in the customs union, perhaps there can be an EU-UK customs union," he said. "We have one with Turkey. Surely we can have one with the United Kingdom?"

Under the EU customs union, no duties are levied on goods being moved within the member states. The European Commission negotiates for the EU as a whole in international trade deals.

Politicians and critics of continued EU customs union membership claim it would prevent the UK from making new trade deals with non-EU countries.

Continued infighting within the ruling Conservative party and the shock of losing its parliamentary majority after the snap general election in June have prevented May from presenting a unified position on Brexit. While many commentators have suggested she will not see out a full parliamentary term, it is unclear who would replace her.

jm/kl (Reuters)

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