Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

U.S. Trade Deal Isn't Key to Brexit Success, U.K.'s Labour Says

  • Trade spokesman suggests party keeps customs union option open
  • Preserving standards more important than securing U.S. deal

Striking a trade deal with the U.S. isn’t crucial to making a success of Brexit, the U.K.’s opposition Labour Party said as it prioritized preserving EU trade and kept its options open on customs union membership.

The U.S. is already responsible for about a fifth of U.K. trade, even without a free-trade agreement, Bill Esterson, a junior spokesman on business and trade for Labour, said in an interview.

“Whether we have a formal trade agreement or not is secondary” to preserving standards, he said. “Fair trade means looking after the very high regulatory standards we have in this country and not sacrificing them in order to reach a free-trade agreement on lower standards with somebody like the United States.”

Esterson also poured cold water over speculation that Labour is homing in on a position of staying in the European Union’s customs union after Brexit, an issue that has riven Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government.

“This early it would be a mistake to say we should definitely do this or definitely do that,” he said. Labour doesn’t want to “sweep any options off the table.”

Brexit Dilemma

His comments suggest that the party could yet decide to stay in the customs union, while no decision is imminent. Labour is seeking to retain the support of pro-Europeans without repelling Brexit voters who predominate in the party’s constituencies, especially in northern England.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a BBC interview last month that his party wouldn’t keep Britain in the customs union but “would want a form of customs union” with the EU, a position backed up by his trade and Brexit spokesmen, Barry Gardiner and Keir Starmer at the end of last year.

May, for her part, has ruled out remaining in “the” customs union or even “a” customs union amid mounting pressure from Tory lawmakers who want a clean break with the EU.

“The key is not to get hung up on the structures or the name of what this thing looks like at the end that we’re trying to achieve,” Esterson said. “We should start with the end in mind, and the end is the best possible access to the trade, the prosperity, the jobs that come from the current tariff-free and friction-free trade that we have with the largest market in the world, and we need to replicate that outside of the European Union.”

‘Complete Non-Starters’

He was more strident in his language surrounding any U.S. trade deal. The issue came to the fore on Wednesday when May refused to rule out including access to the state-funded National Health Service in any trade talks. Her office was later forced to pledge “rigorous protections” for the NHS in any discussions following a backlash from opposition lawmakers.

“It is very clear they (the U.S.) want access to our consumers on lower food standards, lower environmental standards, certainly poorer rights for workers, and they want access to our public services, especially our National Health Service,” said Esterson. “Those are complete non-starters. They are completely unacceptable to the Labour Party and the way we avoid that is by saying these are our red lines that we will not cross.”

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