February 26, 2018 / 4:29 PM / 10 months ago

Breakingviews - Corbyn turns soft Brexit into hard politics

Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, gives a speech on Brexit at the National Transport Design Centre at Coventry University, Britain February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples - RC1EEC8C4340

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Jeremy Corbyn is playing hardball with a soft Brexit. The Labour Party leader says Britain should stay in a customs union when it leaves the European Union. Though his vision is fuzzy, it may appeal to voters and galvanise a parliamentary challenge to embattled Prime Minister Theresa May. UK political instability looks set to step up a gear.

Corbyn’s idea of a customs union with tariff-free access, set out in a speech on Monday, could solve some of the problems thrown up by Brexit. For example, it would enable car manufacturers to freely ship parts back and forth between Britain and the continent during assembly, as they do today. And it would avoid checks on goods moving between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and Corbyn’s plan suffers from many of the same problems as May’s policy. Her cabinet wants to reduce trade barriers with Europe but maintain the right to forge new trade deals, and diverge from regulatory standards. Corbyn wants the UK to have a “say” in determining any future trade agreements. That implies similar veto rights to EU members. Turkey, which is outside the EU but part of a customs union, enjoys no such power.

Though the EU might consider concessions for a close partner, it would probably expect the UK to keep the same obligations as EU members. That would mean aligning with regulations and submitting to the oversight of the European Court of Justice. It might even involve making financial contributions. A Labour government might accept some of these, but it also wants to deviate from EU policy in areas like state aid and immigration policy.

Corbyn has the luxury of not being in power. His objective is to appeal to pro-European voters, while destabilising May. Labour has joined forces with Conservative rebels in parliament in an attempt to make joining a customs union with the EU official policy. That could bring down the government, or prompt a challenge to May’s leadership.

Even if May survives, Corbyn will have weakened her, without tying his hands too tightly. He can either claim to have forced the government to change direction, or blame it for causing economic pain by ignoring him. In political terms, the Labour leader is having his Brexit cake and eating it.


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