Corbyn’s Brexit Bluster
After months of ineffectual posturing, Corbyn has taken an official position on a favourable negotiating outcome.
photo by Garry Knight (Flickr)
by Ninian J. Wilson
Jeremy Corbyn has announced that Labour will support the UK remaining within the European Customs Union. Finally shifting from the safety of ambiguous ambivalence, he has taken a stance from which he can properly hold the Brexit negotiating team to account. Now, after much talk of a ‘common sense approach’, we might finally see a feasible alternative to the hard Brexit offered by PM May. However, whether his alternative is the happy medium that’s all things to all Brexiteers remains to be seen. Corbyn has taken no discernible position on this, the greatest legal-political issue of our generation, for too long. If not nine months ago, why now?
To answer that question, it would be worth appreciating the detail. Much like sexuality, Brexit is a spectrum, in this case with hard on one end and soft on the other. Customs unions, single markets, and hard borders are all critical issues in determining your position on that spectrum. What’s the difference between all these terms? Let’s break it down. The Customs Union, which is what Corbyn wants to remain part of, is a trading alliance between the member states whereby they arrange common trade deals with countries outside of the union. So every member state will have the same trade deal with the U.S.A., for example. The single market is the idea that there will be no tariffs or quotas on goods and services traded between the various member states. So the former regards trade deals with countries outside the union and the latter regards trade within the union. Corbyn wants the former but not the latter. Meanwhile, Theresa May has categorically ruled out membership of either the customs union or the single market but has planned to stay aligned with EU standards in return for market access. By stating his position, Corbyn clearly thinks this is the time to start being more assertive over the negotiating process.
While Labour have controlled the narrative over domestic issues such as the NHS crisis and the Grenfell disaster, they have had no influence over public opinion regarding Brexit. Up until now this may have suited them.
Whether it be Boris Johnson’s Brexit cheerleading, the Irish border issue or a miraculous breakthrough in negotiations, the Tories are, for better or worse, at the centre of the Brexit narrative.
With the official departure date a year away and talks to settle a trade deal post-Brexit due to start in the Autumn, Corbyn’s window to leave his mark was starting to draw shut. Now though, he has taken a position which will serve him well. He’s taken a stance that’s diametrically opposed to the Tories, which gives him a credibility in criticism which he simply did not have before. Secondly, he will have courted the favour of many Remainers and soft Brexiteers who recognise the danger of a hard Brexit, simply put, he’s taken the middle ground. Lastly, and perhaps that of the most salient utility, he has offered a solution to the Irish border issue.
The Irish border arrangement is a feature of The Good Friday agreement, which was a landmark settlement that brought an end to years of unimaginable pain in Ireland. Theresa May’s stance on the Irish border post Brexit and her alliance with the DUP has seriously undermined that hard won agreement. As negotiations advance further and further the issue will become unavoidable. Even Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has noted the possibility of a hard border in Ireland. He said that ‘even if a hard border is reintroduced’ it would not seriously affect the UK’s trade across the land border with the EU. This is simply not true. The legacy of Brexit will be that of apocalypse if it resulted in a fracturing of peace in Ireland, never mind the vast array of other doomsday scenarios that commentators have imagined. By remaining part of the Customs Union it could potentially prevent a ‘hard border’ and mitigate effects on the free flow of trade. This is a neat solution.
Why then has Corbyn not offered the idea of remaining in the customs union sooner if it was a cure all to the Brexit warts? He’s starting to learn the value of timing. When and how you land your punch may just win the round. Whether remaining part of the customs union is the right course of action for the UK is uncertain. However, supporting it is the right course of action for Jeremy Corbyn. That much is certain.