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13 July 2017

What Jeremy Corbyn should say to Michel Barnier

Keeping the UK in the single market is worth fighting for. 

By richard angell

Jeremy Corbyn travels to Brussels today to meet Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator. What he says in the meeting really matters. 

It is incumbent on Corbyn as the leader of the opposition to do exactly what it says on the tin and take a very different approach to Theresa May. His “jobs first Brexit” is the starting point, but he must go much further. 

First, he must speak for the young Remainers that made up the Corbyn surge last month. They want him to put forward the views of the 48 per cent, and at least leave on the table the chance that their friends and neighbours who made up the 52 per cent might change their mind when May comes back with an unworkable solution of her own. It is their future he is negotiating, and he must not let them down. 

Second, Corbyn must tell Barnier that Labour will do all we can in parliament to keep the UK in the single market. With a hung parliament, the Labour frontbench could play a decisive role in whether the UK remains a member of the single market or not. Tariff free access is not enough. Labour’s manifesto promised to “scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper” in favour of “fresh negotiating priorities … on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union”. Membership of the single market is the best way to do that. It is the only way to guarantee jobs, help manufacturing and grow the economy. A huge proportion of Unite the union’s membership, for example, is reliant on this, and customs union membership helps their manufacturing members even more. 

Crucially, Corbyn should ignore those who say being in the single market but out of the EU demotes the United Kingdom to being “rule takers”. This is not necessarily true. We will continue to trade with the post-Brexit single market; we will not simply be ignored. We might have to use our soft power better, convince rather than cajole and build alliances for reform – but we are not Norway. 

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Third, he should get across the fact that his “end freedom of movement” is not about junking one of the fundamental freedoms, but simply getting the control of our borders that people voted for. This could include a number of things you can do within the framework of the single market.

One, bring back exit checks – these were abolished by Michael Howard in 1995 and could be reinstated, for a fee, pretty easily. We were in the single market when we first had them and could have them again. We would them know who is in the country at any one time, which gives voters confidence, andhelps to better plan the provision of public services.

Two, bring in identity cards – not just for migrants, but everyone – and make them key to accessing public services and benefits so people have confidence that the system is not being rigged or gamed.

Three, remove those who have been here three months but have not found work. Belgium is very good at this and is literally at the heart of the single market. 

Britain’s future feels uncertain, so too does the government’s. They are weak and fragile. Corbyn must show Europe he is the leader of the alternative. In this one meeting he could genuinely keep all options on the table.