COVENTRY, England — Jeremy Corbyn made a direct appeal to MPs of all parties to “put the people’s interests before ideological fantasies” and support his vision of a new “bespoke” customs union with the EU.
Speaking in Coventry, the British Labour leader laid out his vision of a trading future anchored closely to Europe, as opposed to the “Global Britain” often touted by government ministers. He said he wanted a new customs union that would give the U.K. a say on future trade deals and give reassurance to British businesses with trading links to the Continent.
To illustrate the value of the current tariff-free arrangements with the EU27, he gave the example of the Mini — which he referred to as one of Britain’s “most iconic” car brands. He pointed out that a Mini will cross the channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey that takes in France and Germany during its manufacturing process. “The sheer complexity of these issues demand that we are practical and serious about this next stage [of Brexit talks],” he said, adding that the U.K. car industry supports 169,000 jobs.
But he was less enthusiastic about the benefits of trade deals with non-European countries. “Both the U.S. and China have weaker standards and regulations that would risk dragging Britain into a race to the bottom on vital protections and rights at work,” he said. “Labour is implacably opposed to our NHS or other public services being part of any trade deal with Trump’s America or a revived TTIP-style deal with the EU, which would open the door to a flood of further privatizations.”
On the single market though, Corbyn was less explicit. “Labour would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union … with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections,” he said. To many in Brussels that will sound a lot like a Labour version of having cake and eating it. (At one point, the Labour leader referred mistakenly to a “new cake” before correcting himself to a “new U.K. customs union.”)
On the issue of immigration, Corbyn said that while the system would change and freedom of movement end “as a statement of fact” after Brexit, the party would put economic growth and living standards before “bogus immigration targets.”
He said the NHS was “already suffering” because many EU staff had “gone home because they’re frightened of the future in Britain.”
Labour faces a dilemma with its immigration policy, with many of its voters in poorer constituencies concerned about the impact migrant workers have on the job market. However, Corbyn said the party would not adopt the same approach as the government by setting “rigid red lines on immigration and then work out what that means for the economy afterwards.”
Corbyn also indicated that the party would seek exemptions from some EU rules as part of a Labour-negotiated Brexit. Asked what these would be, he singled out rules on state aid, which he said blocked a “natural monopoly” in sectors like postal delivery, water supply and rail.
Corbyn also repeated that Labour was not backing a second referendum on EU membership, but was instead looking toward the “meaningful vote” in parliament on the final Brexit withdrawal agreement, expected this fall, in which MPs will have an opportunity to accept or reject May’s deal.
While the speech will cheer Remainers in the Labour Party, it will do little to change the course of Brexit in the short term. The Cabinet now appears to be united around a position of not having any form of customs union with the EU, so that the U.K. can strike its own trade deals in future. Brexit Secretary David Davis referred to that in a Telegraph article published Monday as one of the “central prizes of Brexit.” He criticized Corbyn’s new position as “snake oil.”
What Corbyn’s shift will do is open up a clear contrast with the government and the possibility of a defeat in the House of Commons on the customs union — something that the Labour leader was inviting with his appeal to MPs of all parties. With Labour backing, ministers are worried that they might be vulnerable to a rebellion by soft-Brexiteer Tories on an amendment to the trade bill that will be voted on after Easter. A defeat on such a key issue would spell grave difficulties for Theresa May’s premiership.
Corbyn’s speech won the immediate backing of the powerful business lobby the Confederation of British Industry.
While criticizing Labour’s “overall rhetoric of re-nationalization,” CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn said that Corbyn’s commitment to a customs union with the EU would “put jobs and living standards first.”
“It will help grow trade without accepting freedom of movement or payments to the EU,” Fairbairn said. “Importantly, a customs union will go part of the way to providing a real-world solution to the Irish border question that is of such urgent concern to the people and firms of Northern Ireland.
“This evidence cannot be ignored. To do so would create barriers where there are none, risking prosperity and future living standards,” she added.
An editorial in the London Evening Standard newspaper, edited by former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, said that Corbyn has “with the smallest of nudges, manoeuvred himself into a more pro-business, pro-free trade European policy than the Tory Government.”
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads the Brexiteer European Research Group of Tory MPs said: “Staying in a customs union does not automatically remove the border [in Northern Ireland], Turkey still has a policed customs border while in a Customs Union with the EU.”
“The Common External Tariff increases the cost of food, clothing and footwear which hits the poorest most,” he added, “So Mr Corbyn is asking for an arrangement that keeps the border and harms his own voter base while trying to nullify the Brexit vote. It does not seem either wise or practical.”