LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

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Thursday 7 February 2019

Theresa May is in Brussels today for an appointment with the usual EU suspects, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Martin Selmayr. She’s also got a rather pointless meeting with irksome Eurofanatic MEP Guy Verhofstadt and the European Parliament’s President, Antonio Tajani. Only a simple majority is needed for the withdrawal agreement to get through the EU Parliament, compared to unanimity in the Council.

Votes are weighted in favour of the smaller states. Other than Juncker’s homeland of Luxembourg, most are vulnerable and will not seek to rock the boat. Whatever deal gets put down, it will be passed by the EU’s second legislature, guaranteed. Like we said, pointless.

But today’s big move is the translation of Labour’s six key “tests” that had to be met for Brexit to satisfy the Party’s expectations into five specific positions, issued in a letter to the prime minister by Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour had been thought to be in somewhat of a bind. The tests, originally authored by Sir Keir Starmer, could only be passed by keeping Britain in the EU. For instance, test number one stipulated an acceptable withdrawal would have to safeguard “the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?”

We would dispute their definition of “benefits”, the point, however, is that in the opposition may originally have conjured up a useful weapon to bash the government over the head with, but a time would always come when a defined Brexit policy would have to emerge. Having parked Labour in a cul de sac, Starmer or Corbyn would have to risk looking stupid by toning down the rhetoric or stick with the original plan and alienate millions of voters.

Thus far, the only specific recommendation has been that offensively woolly commitment to remaining in a – as opposed to the – Customs Union. Naturally, that occupies top spot. Corbyn’s terms are as follows:

  1. A permanent customs union, including a say on future EU trade deals.
  2. Close alignment with the single market, including membership of “shared institutions with clear arrangements for dispute resolution”.
  3. Britain should preserve “dynamic alignment on rights and protections so that UK standards keep pace with evolving standards across Europe as a minimum.”
  4. Membership of EU agencies and funding programmes: environment, education, industrial regulation.
  5. “Unambiguous agreements” on future security arrangements: European Arrest Warrant and shared databases but not limited to those.

Labour have fronted up to the challenge they needlessly set for themselves, making no effort to disguise their favour for Brexit in name only, to the extent they’ve added additional demands to ram the point home.

If Britain is to remain closely aligned with the Single Market (point 2) we will automatically be required to stay in step with EU regulations (3), sugared by Britain’s continued membership of EU agencies (4), which are, it must be added, run by bureaucrats governed by limited political control from the outside. These additional demands didn’t need to be made, but they have been, to the effect of declaring loud and clear, we should remain in the European Union. Stuff the 17.4 million.

But that’s not how the Pro-Remain media are interpreting it. “His [Corbyn’s] intervention will dismay backbench Labour MPs and grassroots activists still hoping he will switch the party’s policy towards demanding a second Brexit referendum,” write the Guardian. Why we ask, should Jeremy Corbyn push for a second referendum when he’s planning on remaining in the EU by stealth.

Brexiteers are too often described as maliciously mistaking horses for unicorns – according to Donald Tusk, a special place in hell has been reserved for us – but Corbyn’s letter commits the most blatant promise that cannot be met. Not once does he mention free movement, implying it’s off the table, but you cannot remain in the Single Market without accepting free movement of people.

The only possible middle ground available is occupied by May’s current – and most likely future deal – which preserves the last remaining red line over free movement by essentially promising to hold onto EU rules with judicial oversight thrown in. It’s inconceivable that Corbyn could do better, not because he’s a superior negotiator (he isn’t) but because the EU is utterly obsessed with its “indivisible” freedoms. Fine! It’s a part of the reason we voted to leave in the first place. EU dogma is suffocating.

Juncker has offered permanent Customs Union membership, which would entail remaining in the Single Market for goods, along with all the “rights and protections” Labour are seeking. It’s trap Corbyn has edged us further to falling into.

The main thrust of his letter is a call for the prime minister’s red lines to be banished to accommodate his. If she chooses to do so, Brussels will be served with a ready-made divide and conquer strategy. Corbyn’s demands will just be the start, the concessions extracted over the Withdrawal agreement will look marginal by contrast.

The question is, will May do anything, will she abandon her red lines (or rather, line)? It could hinge on what she learns today in Brussels, but the likelihood is she’ll be told little more than she knows already: the Irish backstop stays etc.

Which brings us back to the topic of yesterday’s Brexit Brunch. The prime minister had made it clear she does not seek to omit the backstop, only to amend it. The solution from her perspective is to get a pledge from the Brussels for the backstop to be temporary and offer Labour moderates a commitment to point 3 of Corbyn’s letter, or at least some of it, specifically workers, consumers and the environment. With those votes on board, she could afford to lose those diehard Brexiteers who rightly deem the backstop unacceptable.

May would effectively be reversing the ready-made divide and conquer trap back onto Labour and her own MPs using the Labour Leader’s abominable BRINO alternative to crank up the pressure. It’s sad to say, but many Tory Brexiteers would back May’s deal under those circumstances, particularly now that the second meaningful vote is expected to be delayed to the last minute. May knows most MPs will not accept No Deal and is doing everything to make her option the only palatable one.

Far from acting like the opposition, the Labour party has just gifted the government a lethal weapon.