07 February 2019

Jeremy Corbyn yesterday wrote a letter to the Prime Minister setting out five changes to the Political Declaration on the future relationship that, if made, could secure Labour’s backing for the deal. These changes include commitments for:

  • A “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union” with the EU, including alignment with the EU’s customs code, third country tariffs and “a UK say on future EU trade deals”
  • “Close alignment” with the single market, “underpinned by shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution”
  • “Dynamic alignment” with future EU rights and protections, for instance social and environmental standards
  • “Participation in EU agencies and funding programmes”, including Erasmus and Horizon2020
  • Agreements on future security cooperation, “including access to the European Arrest Warrant and vital shared databases.”

This is a notable shift from Labour previous “six tests” policy, which called for the government’s deal to deliver “the exact same benefits” as EU membership – something that has widely been recognised as impossible to achieve. Labour’s new strategy offers a credible path to supporting a ‘softer’ version of the government’s deal, and could have an important impact on what both MPs and the EU decide to do next.

Are these asks achievable?

All of Corbyn’s demands refer to alterations to the Political Declaration on the future relationship. The EU has signalled it is willing to consider changes here in principle – in contrast to their steadfast refusal to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

Customs Union:

A permanent customs union with a UK ‘say’ in future EU trade deals is a longstanding plank of Labour Brexit policy. However, a permanent customs union is already possible under the existing Political Declaration, which provides for a spectrum of options – ranging from the Government’s preference of a fully independent trade policy, to customs arrangements which “build and improve on” the customs union element of the backstop. No changes are required for Labour to pursue their desired policy.

As for negotiability with the EU, much depends on what Corbyn means by a ‘say’ in EU trade deals. Consultation and technical co-ordination are certainly feasible, and these could build on the relatively weak provisions in the EU-Turkey customs union. But if a ‘say’ means a formal veto over EU trade policy, this is very unlikely to be negotiable with the EU.

Alignment with the Single Market:

It remains unclear what precisely Labour are proposing on the single market. Previously, they have ruled out remaining in the single market via the European Economic Area (EEA). However, Corbyn’s letter sets out a proposal for joint governance (“shared institutions”), an intriguing inclusion which suggests a closer relationship to the Single Market than the Government’s ‘Chequers’ proposals. Some have suggested it amounts to ‘Norway Plus’ in all but name; it remains unclear whether Labour have shifted away from their opposition to free movement of people. In any case, the existing Political Declaration already makes clear that a “spectrum of different options” are available for the future, depending on the degree of regulatory alignment.

Ultimately, whether this proposal is realistic depends on whether Labour are suggesting full single market membership or a Chequers-style relationship. The former is unlikely to be acceptable to the UK Government as it would entail free movement of people; the latter has already been rejected by the EU. However, the details do not need to be thrashed out yet; some sort of “fudge” could be acceptable to all sides for now.

Dynamic alignment on rights and standards

Corbyn’s call for dynamic alignment on rights and standards is in contrast to the current provisions for “non-regression.” This change would be acceptable to the EU, and could be acceptable to the Government too – depending on how this alignment would operate. A version of Labour MP John Mann’s proposal, under which Parliament would have a vote on whether to remain aligned to future EU improvements on standards should be relatively easy for the Government to accept. A binding commitment to remain in lockstep without a parliamentary lock would be a much harder ask.

Commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes

This objective should be negotiable with both the Government and the EU. The UK has long sought to maximise its participation in EU agencies and funding programmes post-Brexit, which the EU is happy to allow if the UK accepts it will lose voting rights. Indeed, the existing Political Declaration says that both parties will “explore the possibility” of UK co-operation with EU agencies, so it is not quite clear what additional commitments Labour are seeking.

Further agreements on future security co-operation

The principle of strong UK-EU security co-operation in the future is a no-brainer; the problem with Labour’s proposal comes in the detail. In particular, their demand for “access to the European Arrest Warrant [EAW]” is impossible, as there is no “access” to the EAW for non-EU countries. Even Norway and Iceland do not have access to the EAW, relying instead on more basic extradition agreements. Indeed, the Government has already tried to secure access to the EAW, but the EU refused.

Additionally, Labour’s call for “unambiguous” agreements on security misunderstands the nature of the Political Declaration. Further detail on all aspects of the future relationship is subject to negotiations which will not begin until after the UK leaves.

How does this change the political playing field?

May has gone to Brussels this week with the message that a majority of MPs – mostly from her own party – are willing to support the deal provided the EU offers “legally-binding” changes to the Irish backstop. However, in formally stating Labour’s support for a version of the current Brexit deal with a revised statement on future relations, Jeremy Corbyn has raised the prospect of an alternative majority.

For the EU, this is likely to increase their incentive to delay offering the Prime Minister any concessions at this stage. It reinforces their position that a deal could get through parliament without any changes to the text of the Withdrawal Agreement. Indeed, in talks with May today, European Commission President once again restated the EU’s willingness to beef up the Political Declaration. It will also likely be waiting to see if another version of the Cooper amendment – which called for the government to seek an extension to Article 50 – passes next week.

Domestically, Corbyn’s letter could alter the choice facing Conservative Brexiteers. If May returns from Brussels with little in the way of legal changes to the text of backstop, despite having argued “robustly” for them, she can credibly argue she fought as hard as she could and cannot go much further. She can then point to Labour’s demands and suggest her next move will be to pivot towards a closer future relationship with the EU if MPs still refuse to back her. How many would fall in line if the choice became between her deal and a Norway-lite arrangement?

Corbyn’s letter also delivers a blow to those backing a second referendum and drives home Donald Tusk’s statement yesterday that there is “no political force” for Remain in the UK. This has brought the thinly veiled cracks in the Labour party into the open. For instance, despite the leadership slapping down comments from shadow Brexit Minister Matthew Pennycook that Labour could back a second referendum if the government does not meet these conditions, Labour’s Keir Starmer tweeted this afternoon: “[This letter] does not take the option of a public vote off the table.” Elsewhere, a number of “People’s Vote” backbenchers have vocally criticised Corbyn’s letter as facilitating a Conservative Brexit.

However, even if these demands were delivered, would Corbyn really be willing to vote with the government on the final Brexit deal? Instead of formally backing the Prime Minister, he could instead whip his MPs to abstain. The Prime Minister would then still need to quell the number of rebels on her own benches to ensure a Brexit deal goes through. Adjusting the future relationship as a conciliatory gesture to Labour MPs – for instance by including further protections on rights and standards – could be done in parallel to seeking key assurances on the backstop.