The case that Labour should support any amendments that sought to maintain de facto customs union (CU) membership infinitely – at least until an improved and sustainable alternative emerges was made in http://www.asocialdemocraticfuture.org/time-labour-protect-national-interest-voting-cu/ .
Certainly if the UK government does not present very soon a coherent picture of its desired Brexit end-state, Barnier on behalf of the EU will simply begin to impose on the UK a settlement that is consistent with the legally-binding phase 1 agreement.
The Phase 1 agreement made it inevitable that the UK maintains a mutually agreed de facto CU with the EU during any transition period. Regulatory alignment and the avoidance of immigration checks along either the Eire/NI or between the NI and the rest of the UK, seems also to suggest an arrangement very close to continuing de facto single market (SM) membership.
The current efforts of the Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, to marshal cross-party support for a European Economic Association/ European Free Trade Association (EEA/EFTA) + CU (Norway-plus) option are consistent with UK adherence to that Phase 1 agreement.She highlights other selling points of such an approach, apparently directed at ‘leaver-lites’.
First, such a Norway-plus option would still allow the UK to exit the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies, membership of which has increased prices for UK consumers, while the latter has hastened the decline of Britain’s fishing industry.
Second, it would possibly allow some wriggle room to escape direct European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction – through the EFTA Court and associated treaty provisions.
Third, the SM freedom of movement (FOM) requirement could possibly be combined with some measure of immigration control based on work permits.
Fourth, the UK could possibly seek to negotiate alternative trade deals as a EFTA member.
These claims are contestable in terms of EU acceptance, while their actual potential relevance in practice could well be thwarted by the weight of complexity and trade offs involved in, for example renegotiating fisheries with the EU.
And what Soubry and colleagues have also not clarified is whether Norway-plus would just be a transition to another end state, and if so for long that it would apply. This is material, as neither the EEA nor EFTA were envisaged as transitional arrangements for a country on a journey to somewhere else, although there is always a possible first time for everything.
If Norway-plus operated as a two year transition, the UK would still face a cliff edge in 2021 when that ended, as it would not be possible for the UK to negotiate alternative trade deals within that period, implying a much longer time period that it would need to operate.
In any case it remains unclear how many Conservative MP’s are prepared to sign up to support to such a position, which, in effect, commits the government to the softest brexit. Perhaps the threat of revolt is being used to force May to formally align with the Phase 1 agreement that it signed only last December.
Across the benches, it is perhaps understandable that the Labour front bench continues to be cautious in taking the lead in trying to force the government to face up the inevitability of de facto staying in the CU and SM, for fear of providing political space to May to paint Labour as the referendum-reversing party: safer instead to act as to bystanders to a mess created and made worse by the Conservatives, and wait for its consequences to unravel, without risking splits within its own ranks by imposing three line whip, which some Labour Brexiteers might well then defy.
Although it is inevitable that the government’s position will unravel, less clear is precisely when it will.
Yet the national interest and the particular economic interests of those of the ‘left-behinds’ located in brexit-voting constituencies, such as Sunderland, demand that Labour discharges its responsibility as the official opposition, and steps up, not only to hold the government to account for its backtracking from the Phase 1 agreement, but in order to require the government to adhere to it, while offering them a compelling vision of a post-brexit UK.