UK Labour Party’s soft Brexit would still be hard

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn speaks at Paston Farm Centre, in Paston near Peterborough, Britain, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - A Labour government’s soft Brexit would still be pretty hard. The UK opposition is gaining in polls ahead of Britain’s June 8 vote. Leader Jeremy Corbyn is more pro-immigration than Tory Theresa May - but he is less pro-EU than he looks.

It’s easy to conclude that a Corbyn victory would mean a less painful Brexit. His party’s manifesto is friendlier to Europe than the Conservatives’. It promises to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens’ rights, rejects the possibility of leaving without a deal, and pledges to prioritise jobs and access to the single market over reducing immigration.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that Corbyn would have a better relationship with European Union colleagues than Theresa May. The Labour leader is no Europhile. He voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, in favour of an EU referendum in 2011, and against sharing common financial supervision in 2012. The day after the referendum, when Brexit cheerleaders like Boris Johnson were in disarray, Corbyn calmly called for the immediate triggering of Article 50.

Nor does Labour’s approach to immigration guarantee friendly relations. Its manifesto pledges to clamp down on foreign cheap labour, which could alienate eastern European countries. It also insists on equal rights for all immigration, whereas Theresa May’s approach explicitly allows EU citizens to have superior access to the UK than non-EU ones. Corbyn’s stance on economic and foreign policy is at odds with the current Franco-German leadership’s thinking.

Labour would change the dynamics of negotiation with Europe. Although May is shifting the Tory party’s position it remains largely pro-business, while Corbyn is in favour of nationalising key sectors and pushing up taxes. That would unsettle companies already facing the shock of leaving the single market, and make that single market access promised by Corbyn harder. A deal on common banking supervision, vital for keeping banks in London, would be less likely. His anti-interventionist foreign policy stance would make the UK a less useful ally. Europe would have less need to keep the UK close, and less fear of it as a competitor.

The upshot could be that European negotiators would feel they could be tougher on Corbyn than on May. Ironically, the outcome could be an even harder Brexit.


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