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26 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech showed his Euroscepticism endures

Though the Labour leader embraced a customs union, he firmly rejected single market membership and a second referendum. 

By George Eaton

In the tradition of the Labour left, Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. He voted against EEC membership in 1975, against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Though he was persuaded by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and others to campaign for Remain and reform in the 2016 referendum, he did not embrace the EU in the manner some wanted. 

Corbyn’s speech today was that of an authentic Eurosceptic. Though he committed Labour to supporting a “customs union” with the EU (an issue that has rarely exercised the left), he rejected continued membership of the single market (having voted against its original creation) and vowed to “respect the result of the referendum”.

Few analysts believe that any policy in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, with the exception of ending free movement, would be barred by EU rules (as the widespread use of public ownership in other member states shows). But Corbyn vowed to seek “protections, clarifications or exemptions where necessary in relation to privatisation and public service competition directives state aid and procurement rules”.

The intriguing hint here is that Labour’s future policy agenda may be interventionist than that of the hastily-assembled 2017 manifesto. Were a Corbyn-led government to face threats such as capital flight or a run on the pound (as some allies predict), it could adopt more radical measures in response (such as capital controls and nationalisation without compensation). 

At the close of his speech, Corbyn noted that he had “long opposed the embedding of free market orthodoxy and the democratic deficit in the European Union”. Unlike Labour’s “soft left”, which embraced the EU in the 1980s as a bulwark against Thatcherism, the “hard left” continued to view Brussels as a “capitalist club”. 

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But Brexit pits two Bennite principles – Euroscepticism and members’ rights – against each other. As polls have consistently shown, Labour members overwhelmingly favour single market membership and a second referendum. But Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has trumped his oft-expressed commitment to internal democracy. 

Some of the Labour leader’s opponents hope to drive a wedge between him and his supporters on the issue of Brexit. But to date, they have failed to do so. Labour faces little pressure from the pro-EU Liberal Democrats (who struggle to exceed 7 per cent in the polls) and members remain more than satisfied with Corbyn’s leadership. By backing customs union membership, he has opened a new dividing line with the Tories and Labour has sufficient grounds to vote against the final Brexit deal in the Commons. Should Britain leave the EU, it is the Conservatives, not Corbyn, who will be blamed. 

Though a further shift cannot be ruled out (Labour has not definitively rejected a new referendum), today’s speech provided the best evidence yet that the Eurosceptic in Corbyn will fight to resist it. The great hope of the anti-Brexiteers – that Labour will ride to their rescue – is set to be disappointed.