Labour supports keeping the closest possible trading ties with the European Union after Brexit and will lobby Prime Minister Theresa May to stick to that, the party’s Brexit policy chief Sir Keir Starmer said on Sunday.
Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether “you really think that the agreement that Theresa May struck this week means that Britain will, in perpetuity, stay very, very close to the single market and the customs union?” he said: “Yes.”
He added: “And I think that’s the right thing and I think we should hold her to that.”
Sir Keir said: “What are the benefits of the single market and the customs union? They are no tariffs and they are alignment of regulations and standards and that means that for goods and services we can trade successfully in the future. That’s what we want.”
“The way we’ve put it is that we would start with viable options, staying in a customs union and a single market variant which means full participation in the single market.”
Sir Keir has consistently said Labour would seek a deal that “retains the benefits” of single market and customs union membership, a position that would mean maintaining free movement of people from other EU countries.
Asked about this, Sir Keir said he favoured a system of “easy movement” for EU nationals.
“The end of free movement doesn’t mean no movement,” he said. “Of course we would want people to come from the EU to work here, we would want people who are here to go to work in the EU.”
He said Labour’s policy would be to “stay aligned” to the EU after Brexit, which could include making payments to the EU budget, as Norway does.
“We do have a choice, do we want to stay aligned so that we can trade successfully or do we want to tear apart and I say we should stay aligned,” he said.
“You can’t sweep the customs union and the single market off the table on the one hand and also say you don’t want a hard border in Northern Ireland...You can’t have no hard border if you don’t have alignment.”
Labour has previously been criticised for appearing divided on the issue of the future relationship with the EU. Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner described continued single market and customs union membership post Brexit as akin to becoming a “vassal state” of the EU.
But senior party figures appeared united over Sir Keir’s approach, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry later telling the BBC’s Sunday Politics program that the UK did not “need to go a long way” from its current arrangement in order to reshape its future trade policy.
“We would always have prioritised the economy and trade when it came to negotiations and people should be in no doubt, it would be economically ridiculous to march off into the middle of the Atlantic and turn our backs on the European Union,” she said.
“If you want to export vacuum cleaners to Europe, they need to have the same safety standards to the rest of Europe.
“Nobody wants environmental controls, employment controls, all of these different things to be less in Britain than elsewhere in Europe, well, some Tories do, but we don’t and we’re quite clear about that.”
Ms May clinched a last-minute deal on Friday after a fraught few days in which an earlier agreement seemed to have been reached before the DUP stepped in to veto it.
She pledged that the entire UK would “maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union”, where they applied to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Though the Prime Minister later said the UK would leave both the customs union and single market, EU figures said it was “hard to reconcile” that aim with the agreement to avoid a hard border.
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