UK′s Labour kicks single market into heart of Brexit debate | News | DW | 06.06.2018
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UK's Labour kicks single market into heart of Brexit debate

The UK opposition Labour Party has proposed an amendment to the government's Brexit legislation. It could mean a major shift towards a softer Brexit, though EU leaders are adamant there will be no cherry picking.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward an amendment to the government's EU withdrawal bill, demanding Prime Minister Theresa May negotiate full access to the bloc's single market.

Parliament starts debating the UK's Brexit bill on June 12, with the government still divided on what it wants and will be able to achieve and the Labour Party scrambling to find a convincing alternative.

The 2016 Brexit vote cut across party lines and has left both parties uncertain as to how to proceed without losing key sources of support, further compounding the confusion.     

"Labour will only accept a Brexit deal that delivers the benefits of the single market and protects jobs and living standards," said Keir Starmer, Labour's Brexit policy chief.

The amendment also says the legislation should "maintain minimum standards, rights and protections, share joint institutions and regulations and ensure no new impediments to trade."

Starmer said Labour was seeking a bespoke agreement "rather than a Norway-style deal," though it is unclear how Labour would negotiate earlier pledges on ending free movement of people, one of the four preconditions for staying in the single market.

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Critics within the Labour Party say the amendment in practice falls short of calling for full single market membership. Many Labour MPs want a more nuanced approach after the the House of Lords, recently backed Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which groups countries that are outside the EU but inside the single market. The EEA guarantees full access to the single market in return for making payments and accepting four freedoms: movement of labor, goods, capital and services.

Some Labour MPs have called the amendment a political tactic to neutralize a potential rebellion by MPs who want to back the Lords' amendment.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker British Prime Minister Theresa May (picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Vanden Wijngaert)

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker British Prime Minister Theresa May

Tactics versus strategy

It is also unclear if the amendment will even be debated and accepted in Parliament next week. If it is, it remains unclear whether it could garner sufficient numbers to defeat the government.

With the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the government has a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna has said the new amendment could drive some 'Remain' Conservative MPs to vote against the government on June 12, although pro-EU Conservative MPs may be less likely to back the amendment, as opposed to a cross-party amendment led by backbenchers.

If nothing else, however, the amendment puts the single market at the center of the debate, with Britain due to leave the EU on March 29 and Prime Minister Theresa May struggling to unite her Conservative Party and government over a Brexit strategy.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on March 29 (Getty Images/D. Kitwood)

Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on March 29

Labour still split

Starmer told the BBC he believed the EU would be open to negotiating a new deal if Britain dropped its opposition to the four freedoms. 

He said Labour is "virtually" all united on next week's Brexit Bill amendments. On Tuesday he admitted divisions within the party over the issue.

Labour MPs need to be realistic about the party's lack of a parliamentary majority, Starmer added, saying he was "injecting some honesty” about Labour's views on the issue.

Also on Wednesday, a leftwing group within the Labour Party said it is launching a campaign to remain in the EU. Leaders of the Left Against Brexit tour argue that the party can gain votes from a shift. They said a vote for Labour should be seen as vote to remain in the EU.

But the government is split too

At the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament on Wednesday, Corbyn compared May's handling of Brexit with what he called the "shambles" on the UK’s railways, adding that key documents had been delayed while customs proposals had been canceled.

May insisted the UK would leave the EU, as planned, in March 2019 and the 21-month transition period would end in December 2020. “They [Labour] have tried to frustrate Brexit at every stage," she said.

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