LONDON: The UK’s main opposition party proposed a plan to effectively stay in the European Union’s single market, a move that could nudge the country toward keeping closer to the bloc after Brexit.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward an amendment to Prime Minister Theresa May’s flagship Brexit legislation — to be voted on next week. It would make it a formal goal in negotiations to keep “full access” to the single market. May is determined to leave the EU’s internal market, which applies the same trade rules across national boundaries within the bloc.
“Pro-Europeans have accused Corbyn of being the ‘midwife’ of Prime Minister Theresa May’s hard Brexit,” said Eurasia Group Managing Director Mujtaba Rahman. “This is his answer.”
Labour can’t pass laws on its own and needs members of May’s governing Tory party who favour a softer version of Brexit to rebel against the premier and vote with the opposition.
While it’s unlikely pro-EU Tories will want to back an official Labour proposal — it’s possible they could propose a similar re-write Labour could back.
If she is defeated, the risk increases of an early election, which would throw the Brexit process into disarray, and possibly usher in a Labour government. And if the prime minister is forced to change her approach to the divorce and maintain closer ties, she is likely to face a leadership challenge from the Brexit supporters in her party.
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Under Labour’s plan, the UK would also remain signed up to EU “institutions and regulations,” suggesting it could potentially stay in the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. May wants to leave the court’s jurisdiction, though with some exceptions.
The new plan will potentially be put to a vote next Tuesday when the prime minister asks members of Parliament to back her vision for Brexit during a marathon 12-hour debate. She is vulnerable even to small rebellions because she has no automatic majority for her Tory party in the House of Commons.
One of the reasons May doesn’t want to stay in the single market is that it comes with the condition that members allow free movement of people. Uncontrolled immigration is seen as one of the main reasons Britons voted to leave the bloc and it’s also an issue for Labour voters.
However, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said in an interview in April that the party would be prepared to show “flexibility” on free movement in order to get a good Brexit deal.
The new proposal is the latest shift in Labour’s Brexit policy, which has gradually moved toward embracing closer ties to the EU to save jobs. The party has already promised it would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU.
“Labour will only accept a Brexit deal that delivers the benefits of the single market and protects jobs and living standards,” Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday. “Labour’s amendment, along with a commitment to negotiate a new comprehensive customs union with the EU, is a strong and balanced package that would retain the benefits of the single market.”
When the EU Withdrawal Bill comes back to the Commons on Tuesday, May will ask lawmakers to overturn a series of changes imposed on her draft by the House of Lords. One of those amendments called for the UK to sign up to membership of the single market through the European Economic Area (EEA) — the so-called Norway option.
To the disappointment of some of its pro-EU members, Labour is not backing EEA membership and has proposed the latest amendment seeking a new single market access deal as an alternative. “This looks a lot like supporting the single market,” Labour member of Parliament Alison McGovern said on Twitter. “Why not just vote for the Lords amendment?”
“There are very strong and different views” in the party on the EEA which rule out supporting that amendment, Starmer said on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday. “The only way we can win the vote is if Labour is united and we all vote together.”