Confusion over labour position on EU single market following Corbyn comments
12 September 2017
Confusion surrounded Labour's position on the EU single market, after Jeremy Corbyn appeared to suggest he was keeping the door open for continued UK membership after Brexit.
In a radio interview, the Labour leader said he wanted British companies to be able to "trade within the single market" after the transition period expected to follow EU withdrawal, and said it was "open for discussion" whether this goal would be achieved by formal membership or through a trade deal.
But shortly after his comments were made, a spokesman for the Labour leader insisted that the party's position had not changed and that there was no question of the UK being a member of the single market once the transition period is complete.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer had previously said Labour was "flexible" about adopting a new single market relationship or a bespoke trade deal after transition, but Mr Corbyn's comments appeared to go further and open up the possibility of a Norway-style arrangement in which the UK could be in the single market but not the European Union.
Mr Corbyn added to the confusion by saying that he believed formal membership of the market was possible only by remaining in the EU.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's World at One, he said: "We want a relationship which allows us to trade within the single market.
"Whether that's formal membership - which is only possible, I believe, if you are actually a member of the EU - or whether it's an agreed trading relationship, is open for discussion."
But his spokesman later issued a clarification, saying: "We won't be 'members' of the single market after the transition. We want to achieve full tariff-free access to the single market.
"That could be achieved by a new relationship with the single market or a bespoke trade deal with the EU."
Mr Corbyn also said he wanted Britain to retain membership of "many" EU agencies following its withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc and would "forever" be part of the European Convention on Human Rights and subject to the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU body.
The Labour leader has ordered his MPs to vote against the Government's EU (Withdrawal) Bill at second reading in the House of Commons late on Monday.
But he insisted he respects the result of the 2016 referendum to take Britain out of the EU.
"There was a referendum and I think we have to respect the result of the referendum," he told World at One.
Nonetheless, he argued that Britain should not break off its close contact with EU institutions which enable cross-border co-operation on a wide range of issues.
"I want to build a relationship with Europe and I want to work in Europe - a Europe that works for the many, not for the few - and remain a member of European institutions," he said.
“We are obviously going to be forever signed up, I hope, to the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
“But there are many other EU-related agencies that we should be members of and ensure that this close relationship of manufacturing industry and universities remains and the close relationship of peoples across Europe remains.”
Mr Corbyn said he did not believe it would be possible for the UK to reach a new trade deal with the EU by March 2019, but declined to put a timeframe on the transition period, saying only it should last “for as long as necessary and as short as possible”.
“The leave date is set as March 2019,” he said. “I don’t see how it is possible to reach agreement on all the trade issues which are so necessary between now and then.”
He warned of a “very damaging effect to a huge amount of industries in this country, manufacturing as well as financial services” if the UK is allowed to crash out of the EU without a deal in 2019 and forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs.
Labour announced last month it favoured continued membership of the single market and customs union during a transition period lasting as long as four years after the formal Brexit date of March 2019.
Mr Corbyn brushed aside Tony Blair’s proposal that the UK could negotiate tougher immigration rules which would allow it to remain within the European Union.
Labour’s former prime minister said in a TV interview on Sunday that he believes the UK could negotiate an “emergency brake” on EU immigration if public services are overstretched.
He warned that Brexit could be followed by election victory for Mr Corbyn, delivering an “unreconstructed leftist programme” which would create “a very serious situation” for Britain.
Mr Corbyn told World At One: “I watched Tony Blair’s interview yesterday with interest. I am always interested.”
Asked if he agreed with the former party leader, Mr Corbyn replied: “No. He seemed not to understand the economic policies of the Labour Party, and I was surprised by that… I’m not quite sure what the point of his interview was.”
Labour MP Alison McGovern, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign against a hard Brexit, said Mr Corbyn should back long-term membership of the single market.
“The recent shift in position and tone is welcome but the Labour Party has the chance to now be even bolder and back staying in the single market in the long term, which is what the majority of our members and voters want,” said Ms McGovern.
“As the TUC have made clear today, continued single market membership is the best option to protect jobs and retain vital rights at work, and it is increasingly clear that leaving will put them at risk.”