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Labour's major policy shift on Brexit hailed as a 'welcome development' for Ireland

The party wants to remain in the market for “a transitional period”.

The party has rolled back on a previous policy.
The party has rolled back on a previous policy.
Image: David CheskinPA Images

Updated 4.02pm

THE UK’S LABOUR party has undergone a major policy shift on Brexit and has argued for a transitional period where the free movement of people would remain after the country’s March 2019 exit.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer outlined the change in an article in today’s Observer in which he also argued that the UK should remain in the European Single Market during that period.

Irish politicians meanwhile, have welcomed the development, with Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin and Labour’s Brendan Howlin who said it was in Ireland’s interest that a hard Brexit is avoided.

“Transitional deal”

“Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU,” Starmer wrote.

“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 unimpeded immigration from the EU could continue.

Starmer added that curbs on immigration “must be addressed in the final deal” as it was a key issue in last year’s Brexit referendum.

EU leaders have consistently argued that the UK must leave the single market after Brexit. It had previously been Labour’s policy to accept that this would happen immediately after it separated from the bloc.

Labour’s shift comes as the UK’s Brexit negotiators sit down with their EU counterparts again this week to discuss exit terms.

“A welcome development”

In a statement, Micheál Martin said that UK Labour’s new stance is a “positive development”.

He said: “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 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.

Labour’s Brendan Howlin said that this new stance was welcome but said the UK government still had a lot of work to do to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“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,” he said.

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.

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, has said it will be in contact with the British Labour Party over the next few weeks to discuss its proposals.

Brexit spokesperson Chris Hazzard MP said: “However, 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.

“Laying the groundwork”

In a statement, the UK government said that talks this week will likely be technical in nature, “laying the groundwork for more substantive discussions in September”.

Tomorrow, Brexit Minister David Davis will meet with the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, and topics for discussion will include the UK’s position on Northern Ireland, and the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.

A UK government source said: “This round of negotiations will focus on thrashing out the technical detail on important matters related to us leaving the EU, and will act as a stepping stone to more substantial talks in September.

Now, both sides must be flexible and willing to compromise when it comes to solving areas where we disagree. As the EU itself has said, the clock is ticking so neither side should drag its feet.

Brexit negotiations press conference UK Brexit Secretary David Davis (L) and the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier (R). Source: Wiktor Dabkowski/PA Images

The talks are expected to last for four days this week, ahead of further negotiations next month.

The Irish government has been critical of the UK’s approach thus far, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying that he was “confused and puzzled” by the UK’s post-Brexit trading plans earlier this week.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Varadkar said it’s not “realistic” for Britain to expect the advantages of being in the European Union (EU), but 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,” the Taoiseach said.

Last week, Guy Verhofstadt, one of the EU’s Brexit negotiators, described aspects of the UK’s trading plan as “fantasy”.

During the interview, Varadkar again stressed he doesn’t want a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Last month, the Taoiseach also said that Ireland will not participate in any British plans to solve the post-Brexit border issue.

Varadkar said that it was up to the UK to put forward solutions for the handling of the border between north and south in a post-Brexit world.

“Currently there is no economic border. There hasn’t been an economic border since 1992. As far as this government is concerned there shouldn’t be an economic border. We don’t want one,” he said.

After meeting with the UK government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland earlier this week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that they “noted that the issues for Northern Ireland can only be addressed through the ongoing EU-UK negotiations”.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

Read: ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes’: EU citizens in UK given deportation letters by mistake

Read: Varadkar tells US TV he’s ‘confused and puzzled’ by Britain’s trading plans

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Sean Murray

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