Ireland’s politicians rush to welcome Labour’s new policy
Corbyn’s Labour positions itself to bring rebel Tory MPs on side if it sticks to its guns that there must be an orderly Brexit transition period of up to four years
Ireland’s political parties have welcomed the apparent change of policy by the UK’s Labour Party over Brexit as “extremely helpful”. Labour says it now supports a transitional deal for up to four years after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, potentially putting any final deal to voters at the next general election, scheduled for 2022.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, whose party is keeping the minority Fine Gael government led by Mr Varadkar in power, was among the first to welcome comments by Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer that his party now wants a “soft Brexit” by continuing in the Single Market and Customs Union for a transitional period after March 2019, possibly for years, until a new trade agreement is reached.
This raises the possibility of a new government following the scheduled 2022 General Election putting acceptance or rejection of a final, definitive Brexit deal to voters across the UK.
For several months the UK Labour Party’s position on Brexit has been confused and contradictory with party leader Jeremy Corbyn even sacking two front benchers for advocating what Mr Starmer said at the weekend is now Labour policy. His intervention is important because it gives political cover to those Tory MPs who have been resisting Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a so-called ‘hard’ or ‘cliff edge’ Brexit in which the UK pulls out of the EU no matter what in March 2019.
One of those is the Tories’ former Business Minister Anna Soubry who said: “Everything has now shifted to the arguments we have been making for some considerable time.”
She also said she had no illusions that Labour Party leader was doing anything other that simply trying to make trouble for the Mrs May and her party which appears terminally split over Europe.
Prime Minister Theresa May has a slender working majority in the Commons of 13 that is vulnerable to any significant rebellion by MPs, although she can call on the pro-Brexit DUP’s 10 MPs for certain votes.
Outlining Labour’s position Mr Starmer said: “Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU.
“That means we would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both,” he said, meaning EU free movement would continue.
He said a new deal on immigration, including curbs, could and “must be addressed in the final deal” because it had been such an issue on the doorsteps in the UK’s EU Membership Referendum last year.
Sir Keir said the time for “constructive ambiguity” was over: “Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU.”
The party also briefed journalists that it was open to staying in the Single Market, in return for concessions on on free movement, and would accept payments into the EU budget, free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice during the transition.
A wrong-footed Number 10 quickly derided Labour’s new policy as “a weak attempt to kick the can down the road”.
The EU’s official position is that any transitional deal has to be “in the interests of the union” but a time-limited transition period in which Britain had to meet all its existing obligations with no say or voting rights is unlikely to meet widespread opposition among member states.
The leader of Ireland’s official Opposition party, Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin welcomed what was a “positive development” in Brexit for once.
“It is a sensible decision and one which my colleagues and I welcome.
“Keeping Britain in the single market and customs union is essential for Ireland. The (Irish) government must do everything it can to help make this a reality.
“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.
“There is now an onus on all governments across Europe to prevent a hard Brexit from occurring, and to look at all options that would ensure Britain’s continued membership of the Customs Union during an extended transitional period.”
Disastrous for Ireland
Mr Martin said a hard Brexit – which would see Britain swiftly leave the Single Market and Customs Union – would be disastrous for Ireland, and would cause serious damage to Ireland’s strong relationship with Britain.
“The decision taken by the Labour Party 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.”
Governing party Fine Gael’s spokesman on EU affairs Senator Neale Richmond hailed what he called an “imaginative approach”.
“Ultimately the ideal solution would be the UK abandoning Brexit and remaining in the EU, but in the absence of that we must take every opportunity to minimise the damage that Brexit will cause.
“If the UK were to remain in both the Single Market and Customs Union much of the problems highlighted relating to the return of a border in Ireland or impact on the export industry would be removed,” he said.
The Irish Labour leader Brendan Howlin also welcomed his British counterpart party’s change of heart but said “even those softer arrangements would be disruptive to our island”.
“The UK will need to go much further than this if we are to avoid a hard Border on our island, and huge disruption to trade and economic relationships between our islands,” said Mr Howlin. “The reality is that UK membership of some kind in the customs union and single market is the only solution that will work for the island of Ireland.
“I am hopeful that this move by the British Labour Party will now spark a more extensive debate in the UK on what kind of Brexit should happen,” said the Irish Labour Party leader.
Sinn Féin said the only serious solution was to give Northern Ireland a specially designated status within the EU. The party’s Brexit spokesperson, one of the party’s seven abstentionist MPs who do not take their seats at Westminster, Chris Hazzard said: “Remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market will only deal with part of the negative impacts of Brexit. What is required to give effect to the vote of the people of the North, is for the North to be designated special status within the EU.”
Last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who can potentially veto an agreement between the European Commission and the UK, told Bloomberg TV that he was “confused and puzzled” by the UK’s post-Brexit trading plans saying it was not “realistic” for Britain to expect the advantages of being in the European Union with none of the responsibilities and costs.
“What trade agreement does the UK want with the EU? At the moment, they have the best trade deal imaginable. What are these better deals the UK really wants from Europe and other countries? Some more clarity would be helpful,” sad Mr Varadkar.
Later EU officials took the unusual step of briefing journalists in Brussels to warn Britain against using the Northern Ireland peace process as a “bargaining chip” to secure a UK-EU trade deal and dismissed as “magical thinking” many of the proposals – in seven negotiating papers – that Whitehall has issued to date.
“We are concerned by the linkages created in the UK paper on Ireland between the preservation of the peace process, including the invisible border [between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic], and the future of the EU-UK trade relationship.
“The peace process must not be a bargaining chip in these negotiations,” said an EU official.
“The decision to leave the EU is the UK’s decision. It was not the decision of Ireland, it was not the decision of the EU. So the UK has to take responsibility for the implications of that,” the official continued. “If you look at the Ireland paper, it is very good on aspirations . . . but it is short on workable solutions.”
“The technical cannot outpace the political. We are not yet there in terms of the political debate and the full realisation of the implications of [Brexit] on Northern Ireland,” said the official. “This is not the moment to talk about technical, let alone technological solutions…what we see in the UK papers is a lot of magical thinking about how an invisible border could work in the future.”
Asked whether October was a realistic time-frame to make “sufficient progress” on divorce issues, the official said: “When you look at where we are and where we need to be, it is a big gap. In the next round it is unlikely that we will make much progress in closing the gap. There is no deadline for making sufficient progress.”
Meanwhile Britain’s Brexit Secretary David Davis insists it is “wholly illogical” for the EU to imagine it can resolve border issues in Ireland without knowing what future trade and customs relations will be. It is this position which has led to accusations of the UK seeking to use the Border as leverage to by-pass early agreement on three key areas – rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries, the financial settlement or Brexit bill, and the Irish Border – before moving into other substantive negotiations.
A spokesman for the UK’s Brexit Department said in response to the official’s comments that it would not play politics with the progress made in Northern Ireland: “We have always been clear about the importance we attach to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement and to the lives and livelihoods of the people of Northern Ireland.
“There have been decades of progress to achieve peace in Northern Ireland which is why the UK has put forward a detailed position paper that puts protecting the Good Friday Agreement at the heart of our approach.
“That includes a proposal that the UK and EU should agree upfront on the crucial importance of avoiding a hard border for the peace process in Northern Ireland.”
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