UK Labour pressures PM with Brexit customs union call

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Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech on Brexit at Coventry University in Coventry on February 26, 2018. Corbyn called for “a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union” after Brexit on Monday in a major policy shift that could force Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to change course. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on Monday called for a new customs union with the European Union after Brexit in a policy shift that could force Prime Minister Theresa May to change course.

Just days before a keynote speech by May on her desired future trading relationship with the European Union, the Labour leader drew a clear line between his policy and that of the government.

“Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need whatsoever for a hard border in Northern Ireland,” Corbyn told an audience in Coventry, central England.

Britain is currently part of the EU’s customs union, which has a common external tariff on imports, allowing goods to move freely inside the area.

But it would leave after Brexit in March 2019.

Citing the example of integrated supply chains in the car industry, Corbyn said it “makes no sense” for Britain to turn its back on “tariff-free trading rules that have served as well”.

The Confederation of British Industry, Britain’s big business lobby, has also called for a customs union with the EU.

Normally such unions preclude members from doing their own trade deals with other countries — the reason the option has been ruled out by May.

Corbyn offered a caveat, saying: “The option of a new UK customs union with the EU would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals.”

Foreign minister Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit supporter, accused Corbyn of cynicism.

“Corbyn’s Brexit plan would leave UK a colony of the EU — unable to take back control of our borders or our trade policy,” he said on Twitter.

“White flag from Labour before talks even begin.”

The prime minister’s spokesman was unequivocal: “The government will not be joining a customs union. We want to have the freedom to sign our own trade deals and to reach out into the world.”

Commons showdown
Talks on the future relationship are due to begin with Brussels next month, and after repeated calls for clarity from the EU, the prime minister is due to set out her opening position on Friday.

Labour’s position shift could prove problematic.

Any Brexit deal must be agreed by the 650-seat House of Commons, where May’s Conservatives only have a slim majority thanks to the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists and where Labour has 259 seats.

A showdown could come sooner than that, after rebel Conservative MPs tabled an amendment to a draft trade bill calling for a customs union.

“I appeal to MPs of all parties, prepared to put the people’s interests before ideological fantasies, to join us in supporting the option of a new UK customs union with the EU, that would give us a say in future trade deals,” Corbyn said.

Some Labour MPs are unhappy with the shift, however, with one suggesting Corbyn was betraying its many working-class supporters who backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

“It’s the latest wheeze by the well-oiled machine in this country to undo the referendum,” eurosceptic Labour MP Frank Field told the Daily Telegraph.

Boris Johnson concluded: “Crumbling Corbyn betrays Leave voters – and all because he wants to win a Commons vote. Cynical and deluded.”

Single market relationship
May says Britain will leave the EU’s single market after Brexit, and Corbyn accepts this.

But he cautioned on Monday that new free trade deals with China or the United States would not compensate for loss of trade with the bloc.

The left-winger, who advocates a radical programme of nationalisations and public spending, said his priority was “to get the best deal for people’s jobs, living standards and the economy”.

He called for a “new and strong relationship” with the single market, which “includes full tariff-free access and a floor under existing rights, standards and protections”.

Pro-European Labour MPs welcomed the shift, but said it did not go far enough.

“The only sure and certain way to get the benefits of single market membership is to be a member of the single market and we should not pretend otherwise,” said backbench MP Chris Leslie.