Negotiating Brexit

UK Labour opts for softest Brexit as Tory exiters are left in utter disarray, writes Subhash Chopra.

Britain's Opposition Labour party has decided to opt for continued membership to the European Union single market beyond March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU—according to an advance report of the party announcement likely to be made official anytime soon. Labour will support full participation in the single market and customs union during a lengthy transition period that could last anywhere between two and four years after the exit date, says the report. In its clearest stand yet on the Brexit issue, Labour would not only continue to accept the EU's free movement rules, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on trade and economic issues, and pay into the EU budget for a period of several years after Brexit, but it also leaves the door open for continued EU membership with some leeway for immigration control, if accepted by the EU.

The Liberal party under its new leader Vince Cable has already called for a fresh referendum to reverse the earlier decision. The Scottish and Welsh First ministers have long favoured keeping Britain in the EU. The former Labour leader Ed Milliband and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, have also made their position clear in favour of a fresh referendum for remaining in the EU. Meanwhile, the uncertainty created by Britain's internal voices against immigration has led to an outflow of European immigrants who feel unwelcome in the UK. Nearly 50,000 have gone back to their homelands in the recent few months. Liberal leader Cable has also gone on to describe the return of the much needed European workers as "brain drain."
Labour's policy shift, according to the report published in the Observer newspaper, aims at softening the impact of a hard exit on the UK economy. The move comes as music to the ears of not only the pro-EU Labour backers but could sway a sizeable faction within the Tory ranks who have already raised voices against any hard Brexit. It could virtually pave the way for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's party leaving open the option of the UK remaining a member of the customs union and single market for good, beyond the end of the transitional period. Quoting Labour Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, the Observer report suggests voters will have a clear choice between the stances of the two main parties on the UK's future relations with the EU. This comes after a year in which Labour's approach has been criticised for lacking clarity while also appearing to be no different from that of the Tories. The decision to stay inside the single market and abide by all EU rules during the transitional period, and possibly beyond, was agreed after a week of intense debate among top party echelons.
The new policy is sure to raise howls of protest among Labour's Brexit supporters, seen as evidence of the party's betrayal of the will of the people as expressed in last year's referendum, which delivered a clear though narrow victory for 'Leave'. The stage is set for an all-out intra-party fierce debate and even split in both Labour and Tory rank and file membership in the upcoming days when the European Union (withdrawal) Bill returns to the House of Commons for its second reading on September 7.
The upheaval triggered by Labour's policy shift will inevitably lead to an internal shake-out within the Tory party. Pro-EU Tory MPs, who also support remaining in the single market, will come under intense pressure to come out and declare a clear stand. The Tory remainders or anti- Brexiters have a sizeable strength within the party and could rattle the position of Prime Minister Theresa May more than it already is.
Labour's new policy also comes just days before the government's Brexit Secretary David Davis prepares for the latest round of talks on the UK's exit with EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels. Barnier has several times reminded the British of the difficult road that lies ahead. The all-important question of the cost of a divorce bill and other issues need to be thrashed out first before dialogues can proceed any further. The European Parliament's lead coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, has described the UK's proposals so far as "a fantasy." However, Labour party's new policy, if it wins the battle within its own ranks and also among the Tory supporters, could change the game altogether. In the immediate term, the British political scene looks even more unpredictable than it has already been since last year's referendum.
Immigration has been the long obsession of the UK and remains so to this day, though opposition voices have begun to surface now after decades of a virtual xenophobia. Foreign students, especially from the Commonwealth countries and parts of Africa, have been special targets of Tory governments who have for long declared their resolve to cut immigration to tens of thousands from hundreds of thousands, including overseas students who are said to be overstaying in huge numbers.
A new government survey has just revealed that 97 per cent students actually return home after completing their studies. Barely three per cent students overstay, compared with the government's widely circulated fears of nearly "40 per cent overstayers." Prime Minister Theresa May, who previously had been Home Secretary for six long years, has been one of the chief hardliners against immigrants.
A top ranking nationalist party leader of UKIP, the anti-immigrant party, John Rees-Evans, has said immigrants should be offered grants of up to pounds 9,000 plus health insurance and other benefits to return home permanently.
(The author writes from London. Views are strictly personal.)

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