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Labour’s Brexit aims on trade are unachievable, says pro-EU group

'Only membership of of the single market and the customs union will allow the UK to enjoy the current benefits which it enjoys'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 16 May 2017 16:30 BST
Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour election manifesto in Bradford
Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour election manifesto in Bradford (Getty)

A pro-EU campaign group has criticised Labour’s stance on trade after withdrawal as unachievable, after the party tilted towards a hard Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto made no mention of trying to keep Britain in the customs union, stating instead that Labour would focus on “retaining the benefits” of membership.

Last month, Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, suggested Labour was seeking “reformed membership”. Last autumn, he insisted staying in the customs union was crucial.

Most business leaders are desperate not to lose membership, to allow exporters to sell into the single market without the huge inconvenience of having to fill in forms or go through customs checks.

Now the Open Britain group – which is campaigning against a “hard destructive Brexit”, including by pushing for tactical voting in the general election – has said Labour’s aims are unattainable.

“Whilst the manifesto calls for a retention of the benefits of the single market and the customs union, it does not advocate membership of either, despite advocating unrestricted access for goods and services,” the group said.

“Open Britain believes that only membership of both will allow the UK to enjoy the current benefits which it enjoys through EU membership today.”

Labour had previously said it would leave the single market, voting against an amendment to the Article 50 Bill which sought to keep Britain in that trading arrangement.

The Liberal Democrats seized on the manifesto as fresh evidence that Labour was “committed to May's Brexit agenda”.

“In the biggest fight for the future of our country in a generation, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour let you down by voting with Theresa May on Brexit – not against her,” said Alistair Carmichael, a former Lib Dem cabinet minister.

“Now they are failing to stand up for our membership of the single market and customs union, as well as refusing to give you the final say over the Brexit deal.”

At the weekend, 29 Labour MPs joined forces to criticise Mr Corbyn for failing to fight the terms of Brexit, demanding that he back continued full membership of the single market.

The Labour manifesto said: “We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union.”

It went on to acknowledge that those benefits are “essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain”.

The manifesto also said: “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union” – without saying that might be achieved as part of a negotiation with other EU countries.

However, Open Britain did offer support for other strands of Labour’s Brexit policy, including:

* Refusing to leave the EU with no deal – which would mean falling back on harsh World Trading Organisation rules on tariffs and other barriers

* A demand for Parliament to have a “truly meaningful vote” on any final Brexit deal, sending the Government back to the negotiating table if necessary

* Seeking to maintain membership of agencies such as Euratom, the European Medicines Agency and Europol

* Guaranteeing immediately the “existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain”

* Axing the Conservatives’ Great Repeal Bill, to prevent any watering-down of EU-derived legislation during the Brexit process

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