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Mixed signals in the European debate

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Geraint Talfan Davies

As the UK Government chokes on an American chlorinated chicken, the stance of Her Majesty’s Opposition is undoubtedly a matter of some importance. One might have thought that clarity on its part would have assumed a higher priority.

Not so, it seems. At the very moment when a rapier thrust – into the chicken or the Fox – would have done maximum damage, several of its leaders have seemed intent on pinning a target on themselves instead.

Mr Corbyn, never strong on footwork, was asked three times by Andrew Marr a week ago whether he would like to see the UK leave the single market. Mr Corbyn said we had no choice but to leave because “the single market is dependent on membership of the EU.”

Within minutes a queue of people formed to tell Mr Corbyn that this was not true. Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland participate in the single market, without being members of the EU.

He was more equivocal about remaining part of the EU customs union, unlike his own shadow Trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, whose article in The Guardian ruled out both the customs union and the Norway model that, he said, would reduce us to ‘a vassal state’. No hedging there.

Contrary to the views of Mr Corbyn and Mr Gardiner, the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, was categorical that ‘there is no need to leave the single market even as we leave the EU’. In this he has been admirably consistent. Mr McDonnell, while touring Pembrokeshire last week, took the view that these labels do not matter – we can sort out a deal and decide how to label it afterwards.

It makes you wonder why Keir Starmer, the man who actually holds the European brief in the Shadow Cabinet did not take the offer of a job with a London law firm. No wonder he always looks as if he is about to burst into tears.

The truth is that this is slippery ground. It is not easy for the public, or even avid students of these matters, to distinguish clearly between being ‘a member of’ or ‘having access to’ or ‘participating in’ the single market. The distinction between the single market and the customs union is somewhat clearer, although most members of the public will still dismiss it as an arcane matter.

That said, the single market and the customs union are undeniable realities. They have and will continue to have form and substance. Leaving them will have profound consequences.

A plea in mitigation for Labour’s seeming confusion would run as follows. The Labour Party cannot afford to be too categorical at this stage. It also wants to win an election. To do so, it cannot afford to be seen to push the public prematurely towards a rejection of the EU referendum result, however qualified. It may, however, be willing to be pulled in this direction once there is unequivocal evidence that public opinion has taken fright at the prospect of Brexit. If it is not to exacerbate division in the country it will need to count a few more chlorinated chickens first.

If this is really the situation, then one might have expected someone to have told the Shadow Trade Secretary, or to have suggested a few more deft words for Mr Corbyn to utter. Surely, it is high time Mr Corbyn said something warm about Europe and its values. He might also like to contrast those values with the bleak idiocies emanating from Washington.

The question that hangs in the air is this: are Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John Macdonnell, really trapped by their tactical caution and a necessary public respect for the referendum result or, rather, by their past long-standing hostility to the EU?

The belief that the latter constraint is the stronger factor is buttressed by knowledge of the ideological stance of unelected members of their inner team.

It could be that these doubts will be put to the test sooner than we think. After all, nothing is currently moving smoothly for the UK Government. Its leader, far from being an iron lady, is holed below the waterline. Her government is struggling both to arrive at a coherent position and to cope with the sheer scale of the Brexit agenda.

We all know that it is not just a tactical disagreement that separates Mr Hammond from Mr Fox. The internal, ideological divisions in Mrs May’s party are ultimately far deeper than those within Labour.

Her government, too, is not above creating semantic problems for the public to unravel: ending ‘freedom of movement’ (the legal requirement), as stated by the Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, will not apparently mean ending ‘freedom of movement’ (the practice) as enunciated in the same 24 hours by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. The public is also asked to divine the difference between ‘a transitional period’ and ‘an implementation period’.

The most serious import of the Chancellor’s latest intereview on the BBC’s Today programme is that the UK will leave the EU in March 2019, and that a two to three year period will be needed not so much to implement an agreement already arrived at – i.e to transition – but actually to complete the negotiation. It was, in fact, a confirmation that if we leave in March 2019 it will be for a destination still undefined.

The difference between Mr Hammond and his more rabid colleagues is that while they are panting for a giant leap into the dark, he would prefer a gentle slide into the gloom, despite knowing full well that Brexit will make it doubly difficult to find any route out of austerity for a tired and dispirited country. Please note that gentle slide will be after our exit. These are degrees of darkness.

It makes it even more difficult to understand why Labour does not take a more robust pro-European line. What’s the blockage? Internally, unlike the Conservatives, the party does not have to manage a large, practiced and shouty cohort of fanatical anti-Europeans – quite the contrary. Externally, current evidence points to a large majority of Labour voters favouring Remain. The young are overwhelmingly for Labour and for Europe. 

Labour’s influence in the next 12 months will be decisive. In that time we shall discover whether, on Europe, the reasons for nervousness about Mr Corbyn and a more visceral distrust of Mr Macdonnell will be scotched or re-doubled.

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe