Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Is the single market back on the table?

The longer Brexit negotiations draw on, the stronger the hand of those that wish to remain in the single market and customs union becomes, argues Mary Honeyball MEP at Progress annual conference 2017

Ever since the result of the ill-fate referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was known just over a year ago, the two sides – the United Kingdom and the EU have inhabited different planets.

There are those in Britain – mainly Tory but some Labour – who think the customs union and single market are completely off the table and want the UK to just leave.

Meanwhile, the Europeans have always taken the view that the single market, the customs union and indeed EU membership itself have never been taken off the table.

Both sides are very far apart and the EU is very much in the driving seat. On EU citizenship rights the EU has simply not accepted the UK proposals as they do not think they are good enough.

Earlier in the first negotiating session David Davis ignominiously climbed down over the timetable. Citizens rights and the divorce bill will come first followed by the vexed question of the Northern Irish border.

My view is that these three matters will take up the rest of the negotiating time until mid-2019 when the Article 50 two years runs out.

This is no exaggeration. Last week I attended the committee which hears petitions from EU citizens. The meeting dealt with petitions on Brexit from Brits in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. There is massive anger as they feel used as bargaining chips and face huge uncertainty. They will not lie down quietly.

In terms of who is who in this and where the power lies, it is obviously with the EU 27. As a member of the European parliament I will be kept informed by the European parliament liaison, Guy Verhofstadt, an MEP and a former prime minister of Belgium.

Verhofstadt is clear that if Britain were to apply to rejoin the EU after leaving all what he has called ‘perks’ would go and Britain would have to join the euro and Schengen.

The European parliament will, of course, vote on the final deal. We are being kept informed about the talks at every stage.

But it is EU commissioner Michel Barnier who really matters, and he has an impressive team around him, including Sabine Weyand, the former director of the EU trade directorate.

The British team of officials are also impressive – no-one should underestimate Tim Barrow and Olly Robbins. But – David Davis?

The only thing which is clear is that nothing is clear.

We will, I believe, be facing huge uncertainty right up to the end of March 2019.

By that time the hand of those who wish to stay in the single market and the customs union may well be strengthened. Phillip Hammond has already started this process and Labour policy as far as it is at all clear seems to be to stay in the customs union. Some of us, including myself, recently signed a letter asking that Britain also stays in the single market.

It may even be the that UK public opinion in two years time may have moved to an acceptance that full EU membership is the best option.

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, is not the only dreamer. It could yet happen. We just do not know.


Mary Honeyball is member of the European parliament for London and Labour’s spokesperson in Europe for gender and equality. She tweets @MaryHoneyball


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Mary Honeyball MEP

is a member of the European parliament for London


  • Unlike some of the faintly ridiculous utterances of Guy Verhofstadt – and if you want an example of what the EU actually looks like to most outsiders, and appears to function, they see it in the ‘classic’ example of Belgium, a cobbled together ‘state’ – much of politics is not binary it’s about meaningful compromise. And mix politics and economics together ……..

    One of the most meaningful contributions I’ve seen to this debate has been this model for economic co-operation between the UK and EU – – that restricts this largely POLITICAL view over ‘freedom of labour’ that has morphed into ‘freedom of movement’.

    It suggests – and it was released just two months after our Referendum – an inner core of EU nations – just ‘some’ in the Eurozone – could progress towards closer and closer political integration whilst others (including current EU members?) could sit outside in this ‘Continental Partnership’.

    Interestingly look at one of the authors, Jean Pisani-Ferry (and its funding model). This renowned macroeconomist was the Director for Programme and Ideas of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign. Perhaps his and those other eminent economists’ ideas still hold sway with some ‘decision makers’ in Europe?

    I think the other observation I would, with respect, like to make is that there appears to be a widening gulf between the continent’s political elite (and some that report on it) and their electorate regarding the ‘benefits’ of the EU and its ‘direction of travel’ given the latest Chatham House research paper. Something to consider?

  • The thing is, when it comes to the bottom line what you are arguing for is that the UK should stay in EU or at the very least the SM. You know that is against the referendum vote AND the 80-plus % who voted Tory or Labour at the election – both parties accepted the result in their manifesto. We are out – we need a Canadian style free trade deal. There’s a strong argument to remain in Customs Union at least for the ‘transition’ period (which could take several yrs) & possibly remain in the CU permanently if there’s some flexibility for the UK to do some independent trade deals. ‘Hard’ remainers need to come forward with constructive proposals rather than replying the ref.

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