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8 December 2017

At last, the government realises how important the customs union and single market are to our future

And we've all got the DUP to thank. 

By Owen Smith

The European Union’s communiques are always a delight for the Kremlinologists of politics, who miss the days when reading between the lines of Soviet statements was an art form in itself. But this morning, the EU, ably assisted by Theresa May, outdid itself with a statement of such creative ambiguity that it had been spun and translated six ways to Sunday before the ink was even dry. A victory for May, supported by Arlene Foster, welcomed by the taoiseach, delivering for the EU: its dexterity and elasticity has been dizzying to behold.    

But as the spinners slow and the words on paper truly sink in, it should be increasingly clear that this is an important and vital step forward in the Brexit negotiations, and one which sets the terms and the parameters for round two.

Firstly, it offers a cast-iron guarantee that there will not, and cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland and that there can be no dilution of any aspect of the Good Friday Agreement as a consequence of Brexit. Labour has long called for that guarantee – and we will hold the government to it.

Second, it makes clear that one option to deliver that guarantee is “full alignment” for Northern Ireland with the “rules of the Internal Market and Customs Unions which support…the protection of the 1998 Agreement”. That, of course, is a deeply significant concession, as the government had previously denied that such discrete arrangements for Northern Ireland were possible at all.

And third, it’s an acknowledgement that, just as Labour was correct to insist on transitional arrangements within the customs union and single market, Keir Starmer has been right to ask why May took those options to frame our post-transition relationship with the EU off the table in the first place. Alignment with the customs union and internal market were always going to be key to delivering a soft border for Ireland, as the government belatedly admits today.

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However, the government has also agreed with Labour that a bespoke deal for Northern Ireland is not the preferred means to avoid a hard border and protect the Belfast Agreement. Better, by far, to secure a deal for the whole of the UK. And perhaps the biggest unanswered question left, still unanswered, after today’s statement, is how exactly the government proposes to achieve that.

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In reaching sufficient progress to move on to Phase Two of negotiations and the commitment on maintaining alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland, and perhaps the whole of the United Kingdom, the government has taken any “no deal” option off the table. May will now have to keep a close eye on the hard right of her own party who advocated leaving on WTO terms, many of whom have a track record of splitting with the government on Europe.

It is telling that nowhere in the document is there reference to the widely derided “technical solutions” on which the Brexiteers have hung such hopes. There are, instead, altogether vaguer references, in the sacred text of paragraph 49, to “specific” and hopefully “agreed solutions”. Those will need to be spelled out as part of the second phase of negotiations, and the government can rest assured that Labour will fulfil our responsibility as a loyal opposition to scrutinise every aspect of those proposals.

But we will take some comfort that the government is, at last, acknowledging the central role that alignment with the customs union and single market may need to play in guaranteeing the security, prosperity and integrity of Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK. And though it may not have been strictly speaking their intention, I think the whole country can today thank the DUP for helping the government spell out that conclusion and keep the question of our future relationship with the customs union and single market at the forefront of negotiations.