Sunday 26 January 2020

UK politicians finally wake up to Border issues - giving us hope of a better deal

Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Colm Kelpie

At last. A fire has been lit under the UK Labour leadership, and it has finally realised that UK politics badly needs a realistic alternative to the Conservatives' myopic focus on Brexit meaning Brexit.

Labour's declaration that it would keep Britain in the European single market and customs union for a transitional period after Brexit, offering a clear alternative to the policies of Theresa May, is a positive for Ireland.

Writing in yesterday's 'Observer', Keir Starmer, Labour's Brexit spokesman, specifically singled out Northern Ireland, describing it as a "serious issue" that requires more time to come to a conclusion that avoids a hard Border.

The UK government's proposals, as laid out in a policy paper published almost a fortnight ago, also envisage a transitional period, but one in which it has simply a close association with the customs union, and which allows the UK to explore free trade deals with the rest of the world.

That was dismissed as "fantasy" by one EU figure, and sparked questions about how Brussels could accede to such a proposal and how it could possibly be implemented in time for March 2019. The position did little to sooth nerves here.

Maintaining the UK's membership of the customs union and single market for a period beyond 2019 would ensure the Border remains as it is - open and invisible.

The most obvious way to keep it that way, of course, would be to ensure the UK remains in the customs union in the long-term.

Labour's proposal doesn't commit to that, arguing instead that its transition plan would not resolve the question of migration, one of the key issues for voters in the referendum. Mr Starmer was clear that Labour remains committed to going ahead with Brexit and said Labour wanted to see a final deal that allowed the UK "more effective management of migration" - a difficult position to reconcile with full membership of the customs union.

But as an alternative vision to the direction of the Conservatives, it's welcome.

How to implement it is the challenge.

Following months of uncertainty and division on Labour's position, the comments are aimed at providing a springboard for Jeremy Corbyn to potentially defeat the Conservatives in any new election.

But unless an election is called early, and don't rule that out, the next chance to unseat the Tories won't come until 2022 - three years after Brexit.

Theresa May has been weakened, though. The May election left her without the clear parliamentary majority she expected to secure, while in contrast it gave Corbyn a political boost.

The Tories appear beset by internal divisions over Europe. If Corbyn can win over those Conservatives in parliament to rebel and vote with Labour and other like-minded MPs, the prime minister could find herself under pressure to concede ground. And that would be welcome here.

Irish Independent

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