From creative ambiguity to plausible deniability: Starmer’s route to the Single Market

Keir Starmer has won the internal Labour party with the Lexiters, and is now well set to deliver a Customs Union and Single Market on more or less the same terms as under EU membership. This will be indeed be Brexit in name only that many of us will be happy to accept as second best to continued membership.

This may seem a bold statement, but SM membership is the logical consequence of Labour’s decisive move this week to a Customs Union.

A Customs Union agreement with the EU does not of itself create the frictionless trade that all parties say they want. That is why, as Vernon Bognador points out, the Turkey-Bulgaria border has long tailbacks of lorries:

[T]he greatest illusion shared by supporters of a customs union is that it would promote a frictionless border……The 60,000 lorries sent from Turkey to the EU every year are required to carry a host of documents, including an export declaration, invoices for the products they are carrying, insurance certificates and a transport permit for each EU nation they intend to drive through. These permits, which are set by agreement with individual countries, can be made subject to quotas.

These bureaucratic requirements only dissolve when the EU makes a specific agreement and, As Bognador says*:

The EU has so far agreed to frictionless trade and open-access road transport only for countries that accept free movement — members of the European Economic Area (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) and Switzerland, which has bilateral agreements.

And if the UK is going to have to accept free movement — the biggest perceived obstacle to continuation of Single Market conditions, it may as well go the whole hog.

That logic seems uneluctable: essentially it’s that there is no real option between hard Brexit with hard borders and the very softest of Brexits with currently arrangement largely untouched.

Labour, under Starmer’s guidance, has realised that, because of this logic, the best approach is to focus solely on the Customs Union issue for now. It is likely to win that vote in the House, and with that threaten the very survival of the government. It would not win a vote on Single Market status, because some of its own MPs would rebel, but it only need to deal with that when in power.

Of course, the challenge as when it comes to power — will be to sell that as a managed migration policy rather than ‘unconditional” acceptance of the Single Market’s rules, but that is not beyond the wit of Starmer.

Article 45 (3) of TFEU already allows for movement “limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health”, and an agreement with the EU that Directive 2004/38/EC, brought into control abuse of Article 45 93), might now be reviewed, may be enough to justify the term ‘managed migration’, as may be be some suitable wording to throw in about the Posted Workers Directive, agreed with a now breezy and compliant Barnier team (and such discussions have probably already been had).

For now, while many us would prefer greater certainty over freedom of movement, there is no need to go there. The idea that we will end up with continued freedom of movement with a few small tweaks remains within the parameters of plausible deniability, because it is of course possible to take the Turkish option of Customs Union & Hard Borders.

To date, Keir Starmer’s played a blinder, and if need be he has another trick up his sleeve. in the form of the manifesto commitment (repeated this weekend on TV by Corbyn) to “a ‘presumption of devolution’ where powers transferred from the EU will go straight to the relevant region or nation”.

These devolved powers, logically, would include a the power to (re)negotiate Single Market status, even if other regions and nations of the UK do not join in, and yesterday’s draft agreement contains that very prospect. If the Commission can offer Northern Ireland such status, then Scotland would be, under Labour’s manifesto, potentially entitled to do the same, though of course the Good Friday Agreement falls away.

But thanks to Starmer’s careful steering, I do not think we’ll have to go that far.

*Donald Tusk makes more or less the same point as Bognador in today’s tweet, referring to both Customs Union and Single Market as necessary to frictionless trade.


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Paul Cotterill

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Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.