In his speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn helpfully set out where he is on the EU and Brexit.
It is worth going through Corbyn’s speech in detail to see what makes sense to anyone sitting in an EU27 capital or the EU Commission. In a little over a year’s time there will be no more British MEPs, Ministers or officials able to take these arguments to the rest of the Europe. If Corbyn enters as prime minister on the basis of the Dundee programme on Europe he will be very alone as by then most bridges with Europe will have been blown up.
Corbyn said: “We would aim to negotiate a new and strong relationship with the single market and a floor under existing rights, standards and protections for workers, consumers and the environment.”
Comment: Third countries do not have a strong relationship with the single market. You are in in or you are not in it. There is no halfway house. A Labour government can legislate domestic laws for workers or the environment but will have no say on what the rest of Europe decides.
Corbyn : “We would want to negotiate protections or exemptions where necessary from current rules and directives that push privatisation and public service competition or restrict our ability to intervene to support domestic and local industry and business or undermine attempts to protect rights at work.”
Comment: Outside the EU the UK can do what it likes. It is not true to say nationalisation or state ownership is forbidden by the EU. There are plenty of models of ownership in Europe, often involving workers sitting on boards or devolved regional governments making laws to support local economic development. It is true that the kind of protectionist tariffs President Donald Trump wants to levy on British steel are illegal. But outside the combined strength of the EU, British steel and other workers will be exposed to any such levy or tariff that a more powerful trading partner chooses to impose.
Corbyn: “We cannot be held back from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy.”
Comment: It was Labour Britain 1997-2010 that did its best to delay the implementation of the European Agency Workers Directive which prevents exactly the kind of exploitation Corbyn highlights. The EU is also strengthening its Posted Workers Directive. The EU has no commitment to free market orthodoxy but rather it is the only international treaty organisation in the world which writes into enforceable law many worker protections. Blaming Brussels for the failure of successive UK governments to enforce EU worker protection law is bizarre.
Corbyn: “We are determined to negotiate a deal that gives us full tariff-free access to the single market.”
Comment: Again, a nice aspiration but it is not tariff barriers that will prevent the 300,000 UK firms currently trading into the EU from having the same access as today. Real problems for industries like chemical and medicines are non-tariff rules. If a Labour government refuses to abide by these EU rules, the goods won’t easily be sold outside the UK. Labour’s pick ‘n’ mix, cake-and-eat trade ambitions won’t succeed any more than Theresa May’s will. You are in the Single Market or not like you are pregnant or not. To anyone in the EU27 and Brussels in charge of the Single Market this statement will make no sense.
Corbyn: “We also need to be clear we could not accept a situation where we were subject to all EU rules and EU law, yet had no say in making those laws. That would leave us as mere rule-takers and isn’t a tenable position for a democracy.”
Comment: The UK can continue to make EU laws by staying in the EU. The idea that outside the EU anyone will notice anything what a Labour government says about what EU laws should or shouldn’t be is incoherent. Moreover, the Norway compromise of staying in the Single Market but outside the full EU Treaty membership has not threatened Norwegian democracy and it is rather patronising to a progressive Nordic nation close to Britain to suggest it is.
Corbyn: “We are also clear that the option of a new UK customs union with the EU would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals.”
Comment: If a Labour-run UK seeks membership of the EU Customs Union it will have to abide by the trade deals of that Customs Union. Britain currently lies 15th in the EU league table of exports per capita. Germany exports four and a half time as much to China as the UK and does so happily within the EU Customs Union and Single Market. The UK can be like Turkey as a partial member of the Customs Union but the EU27 are unlikely to give Britain special trade privileges unknown in the history of customs union arrangements.
Corbyn: “Considerable delays for checks at ports and airports would cause real difficulties and costs for perishable goods such as seafood.That is why retaining the benefits of the customs union and the single market is vital to future Labour governments in both Holyrood and Westminster.”
Comment: Corbyn is 100 per cent right. But you cannot retain the “benefits of the customs union and single market” while rejecting membership of both. It is a political and logical impossibility.