Labour’s Starmer Says Brexit Must Include Migration Curbs

Updated on
  • Opposition party fighting idea of hard Brexit with EU
  • Tories accuse Labour of trying to overturn referendum result

Keir Starmer, shadow secretary of state for the U.K.'s opposition Labour Party, right, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in London, on Dec. 13.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesman for the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party, suggested control over immigration should be a red line in the coming negotiations with the European Union while acknowledging it would make single-market access more difficult.

While pledging to fight against a “hard Brexit,” Starmer said in a speech on Tuesday that changes to the way freedom of movement operates in the U.K. must be part of the talks if rifts are to be healed in a Britain “more divided now than at any time in my life.”

Keir Starmer on Dec. 13.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

“In the negotiations to come, it is incumbent on the government to fight for the fullest possible market access and reasonable management of migration,” he said in the speech at Bloomberg LP’s European headquarters in central London. “We should demand nothing less.”

Labour is seeking to make its mark on the Brexit debate after a lackluster showing in two by-elections in as many weeks that were seen as tests of Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of the process of leaving the European Union. By stressing the need for migration control, Starmer is addressing one of the biggest criticisms of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the Brexit debate -- his failure to define the party’s stance on immigration.

In both pro-“Remain” Richmond, in west London and “Leave”-supporting Sleaford in eastern England, Labour was a distant also-ran. 

Starmer used the speech to raise the specter of lost opportunities if the U.K. quits the EU customs union and single market and opts instead to trade on World Trade Organization terms.

“A Hard Brexit” would “entail a range of harmful new barriers to trade and a desperate rush to sign new agreements with third party states to compensate,” Starmer said. Such a path would lead to “a global race to the bottom which would not only put our economy and jobs at risk, but which would also abandon our shared scientific, educational and cultural endeavors with the EU.”

Labour has a “duty” to fight for a divorce from the EU on the best possible terms, Starmer told his audience, adding that “future generations will not forgive us” if the party fails to make the case for positive engagement with the EU in “the battle of our times.”

The opposition party must argue for a future “where we exit the EU but build a new and strong relationship with our EU partners based on the principles of cooperation, collaboration and mutual benefit,” Starmer said. “A future which preserves our ability to trade in goods and services with our biggest market.”

‘Extremely Difficult’

Starmer said in an interview with Bloomberg Television after his speech that negotiating a free-trade deal with the EU within two years would be “extremely difficult” as he endorsed Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond’s call for a transition period to smooth the path of Brexit.

Starmer also stressed that May’s promise to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands is unrealistic and potentially harmful to the economy. The number of people coming to the U.K. outnumbered those leaving by a near-record 335,000 in the year prior to the Brexit vote.

“The prime minister is raising Brexit expectations which cannot be fulfilled without seriously harming our economy and public services,” he said.

May’s Conservatives said Starmer’s speech illustrated why voters should not trust Labour to deliver on the June 23 referendum result, in which 52 percent voted to leave the EU.

“The truth is Labour just don’t believe Britain can thrive outside the EU, and keep looking for any new excuse to try to block Brexit and overturn the decision of the British people,” the party said in an e-mailed statement. “Only the Conservatives can deliver the right deal for Britain as we leave the EU -- where we can make our own decisions about immigration and deliver the best possible trading arrangements for British firms, both with the EU and the rest of the world.”

— With assistance by Mark Barton

(Updates with comment from Bloomberg Television interview in 10th paragraph.)
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