“[Labour] wouldn’t have all this problem with the backstop etc because we want the whole of the United Kingdom to be in a permanent customs union with the EU.”
Shami Chakrabarti, 6 December 2018
Ms Chakrabarti seems to be suggesting that the Labour Party’s proposed future trade agreement with the EU would guarantee no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The implication is that Labour’s proposal would remove the need for the Irish backstop trade arrangements (which are designed to avoid a hard border as a position of last resort).
Labour’s proposals may avoid a hard border in Ireland, but it seems extremely unlikely that the EU would accept those proposals alongside everything else Labour wants from Brexit. For example Labour wants the UK to have a say in the EU’s trade deals post-Brexit, which appears to fall foul of the EU’s red lines.
To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, there needs to be frictionless trade—meaning no checks on goods crossing the border. This depends on there being no tariffs on goods traded between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (unless technological solutions can be found to check goods and collect tariffs away from the border), and common regulatory standards on both sides.
The backstop proposals would put the whole of the UK in a tariff-free single customs territory with the EU, but Northern Ireland would be more closely aligned to EU regulations on things like product standards. So goods could trade freely across the Irish border, but there would be some checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, as they would have different regulatory standards.
Labour wants “a new, comprehensive customs union with the EU” which ensures no tariffs between the whole of the UK and EU. It also wants “a new and strong relationship with the single market that gives us frictionless trade”—this would require the whole of the UK, not just Northern Ireland, to follow the single market’s regulatory standards. Taken together, this proposal could lead to no hard border in Ireland and no regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
But it’s hard to judge how feasible this stance would be as a negotiating position, for the simple reason that Labour are not the ones negotiating Brexit.
That said, Labour’s proposals sound like having all the benefits of the single market and customs union, without all of the obligations. The EU has repeatedly said it will not accept a “pick and mix” or “à la carte” approach to the single market and customs union.
For example, Labour’s wants frictionless trade in goods between the UK and EU (which requires very close alignment with single market rules) but also seemingly wants to end freedom of movement. In June 2016 the EU said “access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms, including the freedom of movement”.
Labour also says that it wants “a British say in future trade deals” as part of their proposed new customs union with the EU. It’s unclear whether this means having a say in the EU’s future trade deals, or the UK being able to negotiate its own deals. Either seems unlikely, as the first situation means the UK having the same privileges as a member state (something the EU has ruled out), and the second sees the UK having tariff-free trade with the EU without the same obligations as a member state.