UK Politics

Brexit: Starmer defends 'divided' Labour's single market move

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Media captionShadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer tells Today Labour is united on Brexit amendments

Labour remains divided over whether to try and stay in the EU's single market, its Brexit spokesman has said.

Sir Keir Starmer said the party's MPs had "different views" as he set out a series of compromise proposals on retaining access to the single market.

He also confirmed that Labour would not back a vote next week on keeping the UK in the single market through membership of the European Economic Area.

The UK is due to leave the EU in March next year, after the 2016 referendum.

The background to Labour's position

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Much of the focus at the moment is on what sort of relations the UK will have with the European Union after Brexit.

The Conservative government has said that the UK will leave the EU single market and the EU customs union and will no longer be subject to the European Court of Justice, but wants to agree a deal providing as "frictionless" trade as possible.

The EU says that to have the benefits of the single market the UK must be subject to its rules and also agree to the free movement of people - the latter is something which both main UK parties have currently ruled out.

The government's EU Withdrawal Bill (which puts all EU law into UK law to prevent chaos on Brexit day) has been amended by the House of Lords to back a customs union being agreed with the EU, and also for the UK to join the European Economic Area, which would mean it being a member of the single market, like Norway.

MPs are due to vote on these and a series of other Lords amendments which are also at odds with the government's position. Many Labour MPs and peers had hoped Jeremy Corbyn would say the party would vote for staying in the European Economic Area.

But Labour has now said it will not support that amendment, instead setting out compromise plans for "full access" to the single market.

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Labour's Brexit spokesman explains stance

Sir Keir Starmer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme Labour was not trying to have its "cake and eat it" by seeking to get the benefits of the single market without the responsibilities.

Sir Keir said there were different views in the party about European Economic Area membership - widely referred to as the Norway model - so they would not be able to defeat the government on it.

If it was an EEA member, the UK would get full access to the single market, have to pay into the EU budget and free movement laws would apply.

Labour has said it will abstain in Tuesday's vote on the EEA and put forward its own amendment - which rules out the free movement of people but calls for "no new impediments" to trade.

Sir Keir said Labour hoped to inflict a "catalogue" of defeats on the government - including on a new customs union, giving Parliament a decisive vote over the final deal and the Northern Irish border.

But he said it was a "pretence" Labour would be able to win a vote on the EEA issue.

"I am injecting some honesty about where we are in the Labour Party," he said. "There are very strong and different views across the Parliamentary Labour Party on that amendment.

"I wish I could report we had unity on all amendments. We are not in that position... the only way we can win a vote is if Labour is united and we all vote together in the same way at the same time."

The key dates ahead on Brexit

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The maths of Commons votes

Theresa May's Conservative Party have 316 MPs and a deal which gives them the support in key votes of the 10 DUP MPs from Northern Ireland. At the moment it would take all opposition MPs - and eight Conservatives to rebel - for a defeat to happen.

For every Labour MP who voted against EEA membership another Conservative rebel would be required.

A big change in Labour policy?

Sir Keir called it a "significant" statement of policy, that Labour wanted a relationship with the EU after the transition period ends in 2020 based on "shared institutions and regulations" and "common standards".

The EU, he suggested, was prepared to negotiate such a relationship, which he said would be supported by business and workers as it would retain most of the existing benefits of the customs union and single market.

"If the UK indicates that it wants to negotiate something which keeps us economically close to the EU, there is a negotiation to be had and we should have that before giving up on that.

"The government has giving up fighting for the customs union and single market for fear of the negotiations."

Mr Corbyn has said EEA membership would make the UK a "rule-taker" with no say in Brussels but pro-EU campaigners says it is still the best deal on offer for the UK.

Reaction to Labour's stance

Labour MP Chuka Umunna said potential Tory rebels would not support Labour amendments for "tribal and political reasons" and would only give their backing to cross-party proposals.

"The only amendment that has any prospect of success on the European Economic Area, on the internal market as some people call it, is the amendment that has been sent back to us from the House of Lords."

The Liberal Democrats accused Labour of "peddling snake oil", saying the only way to have access to the single market was by being part of the EEA.

Brexit minister Suella Braverman said: "Labour have shattered their promise to respect the referendum result - this amendment means accepting free movement and continuing to follow EU rules with absolutely no say in them, which is the worst of all worlds."

Reality Check analysis: Is there such a thing as a "Norway model"?

Chris Morris writes

There are two routes into the single market:

  • If you're an EU member state, it's compulsory
  • If (like Norway) you're part of the European Free Trade Association (Efta) it's voluntary

Together, EU member states and Efta states who decide to join them are all members of the European Economic Area (EEA) and hence the single market.

If that's too many acronyms and initialisms already, you can sum it up like this: Norway has chosen to be in the single market, but not in the EU's customs union.

Single market membership means Norway accepts EU rules and regulations, including the freedom of movement of people. But as it's not in the EU, it doesn't get to vote on setting or changing those rules. It does get consulted.

Norway also makes substantial contributions to the EU budget to pay for single market membership. But it argues that it retains greater sovereignty because it is not part of the EU's formal structures.

Of course the fact that it's not in the customs union means that there are still (very efficient) checks at the Norwegian border with the EU.

So if the UK's goal is to have no border checks in Ireland at all, Norway doesn't solve that problem.