Sunday 19 January 2020

Soft Brexit call could be 'game changer' on Border

Michael McGrath: UK Labour move could be significant. Photo: Collins
Michael McGrath: UK Labour move could be significant. Photo: Collins

Colm Kelpie

The UK Labour Party's call for a soft Brexit transition period, with access to the single market, would give more time to resolve Ireland's "complex" Border question, the party has said.

In what is being regarded as a dramatic shift in policy for Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has come out fighting as the supporters of a 'soft Brexit', insisting the UK should remain wedded to the EU for a lengthy period after March 2019, in which the same basic terms of membership are maintained.

That's in contrast to the UK government's stated intention to leave the customs union and single market in just over 18 months' time.

The Labour move has been welcomed in political circles here, with Fianna Fáil's Michael McGrath describing it as a potential "game changer".

He predicted "many twists and turns" in the Brexit talks ahead, but said the move is particularly significant given the fragile nature of Theresa May's parliamentary majority.

His party leader Micheál Martin said the Labour Party decision to shift its policy position shows us that a hard Brexit is far from inevitable.

"Now is the time for the Irish Government to step up its effort to convince the British government of the enormous benefits of continued membership of the single market and customs union," he said.

The proposal, which would mean no additional customs or migration controls in March 2019, would allow more time to finalise details of the UK's departure, and give government and business time to prepare, Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said, in an article penned for the 'Observer' newspaper.

"There would be no need to set up complex alternative customs or trading relations," Mr Starmer wrote.

"It is a grown-up acknowledgment that bespoke transitional arrangements are highly unlikely to be negotiated, agreed and established in the next 18 months."

He also listed the advantages of such a proposal, including providing more time to deal with the issue of the Border.

"Labour is clear this extremely serious issue must not be rushed and a considered agreement needs to be reached that prevents a hard Border and has support from all communities," Mr Starmer wrote.

"The government's policy paper on this was incredibly light on detail and gave precious little reason to believe this will be resolved satisfactorily by March 2019."

The shift in Labour's policy comes as the UK prepares for another round of negotiations in Brussels today, which EU officials have signalled are unlikely to yield much progress.

Brexit Secretary David Davis will ask his EU counterpart Michel Barnier to use "imagination" and flexibility to allow talks to move on.

Labour's proposal is in contrast to that proposed by the UK government in a policy paper just weeks ago, in which it called for a transition period that would mirror the customs union, but allow the UK to negotiate its own trade deals with the rest of the world. That was quickly dismissed as "fantasy" by one EU figure.

Mr Starmer was clear that Labour remains committed to implementing Brexit. He also said his party wanted to see a final settlement that allowed the UK "more effective management of migration" - something that would make permanent membership of the single market difficult.

The leader of the Labour Party here, Brendan Howlin, said the "debacle" of Brexit is a "creation" of the Conservative Party. He said a change of government in Britain would be "in the best interests of Ireland".

Irish Independent

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