Corbyn comes to Brussels as fears of ‘no deal’ Brexit grow

Michel Barnier (R), the European Chief Negotiator of the Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom under Article 50, receives a jersey from British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) as they meet in Brussels, Belgium, 13 July 2017. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party Jeremy Corbyn will warn the EU’s Brexit chief Michel Barnier of the dangers of a “no deal” Brexit when he visits Brussels on Thursday (27 September), his party said.

Corbyn said on Wednesday Labour would vote against a Brexit deal based on Theresa May’s so-called “Chequers” proposals, the strongest warning yet to a prime minister whose plan to leave the European Union is hanging by a thread.

Facing rebellion among Conservatives who say it binds Britain too much to EU rules, and opposition from those who want to keep even closer ties to the bloc or to stop Brexit, May’s room for manoeuvre is limited, raising risks of an upset.

May has said the EU needs to show Britain respect and come up with their own alternatives to her proposals, which EU leaders rejected at a summit in Austria last week.

“With just weeks of negotiating time left, it’s clear that UK-EU Brexit talks are in a perilous state. Time is running out and companies are losing patience with the absence of any clarity from the government,” Corbyn said in a statement ahead of the meeting with Barnier, adding he would set out how his party would break the current impasse in talks.

“Crashing out of Europe with no deal risks being a national disaster. That is why I’m meeting EU officials today, and I will be urging them to do all they can to avoid a “no-deal” outcome, which would be so damaging to jobs and living standards in both the UK and EU countries.”

Corbyn has previously met with Barnier to discuss Brexit, and once brought him an Arsenal football shirt as a gift.

May has said that Labour’s meetings with EU officials are undermining her efforts to negotiate a Brexit deal.

Barnier himself tweeted on Wednesday that he was “working for an orderly Brexit” – Brussels-speak for averting a collapse of talks that could see Britain, and EU businesses and citizens, plunged into legal limbo on Brexit Day next 29 March.

One diplomat involved in Brexit talks said his confidence that a deal was in the offing had started to recede. “I am less optimistic now,” he said. “I’m not so sure any more.”

And in a reminder that May’s potential difficulties in securing a parliamentary majority for any deal she can strike with Brussels could trigger what the EU has labelled a “catastrophe”, a senior official working for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker briefed ambassadors from the other 27 members on plans to deal with an abrupt British departure.

Diplomats and officials said Wednesday’s discussions were a sign of determination to cope with a “hard Brexit” if Britain refuses to accept EU terms, but views were mixed on whether it signalled a greater degree of urgency or fears of a no-deal.

“There’s a wish not to rock the boat with too much ‘no deal’ posturing,” one EU diplomat said. “It’s simply a calendar issue – if we want to be sure we’re prepared, we need to move forward.”

‘All options on the table’

Wrapping up the Labour party’s annual conference in Liverpool on Wednesday, Corbyn sought to play down his own party’s divisions over Brexit and presented a “radical plan” for government.

He said that an election should be called if parliament fails to approve May’s Brexit deal, hours after she told reporters in New York that an election before Britain leaves the EU would “not be in the national interest”.

If an election is not called, Corbyn said, “all our options are on the table” — a reference to the possibility of advocating a second Brexit referendum.

Labour has held back from full-throated backing for a second referendum because many of its supporters voted for Brexit, although younger members and many of the conference delegates have been speaking out in favour of another vote.

Party delegates voted on Tuesday to support the possibility of a second referendum if May is unable to get a final deal through parliament.

But veteran leftist John McDonnell, Labour’s main finance spokesman, went off message on Monday, saying the option of staying in the European Union should not be on any ballot paper.

The party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer hit back, receiving rapturous applause from members when he also veered off script to insist that remaining in the bloc was still on the table, exposing the power struggle behind the veneer of party unity.

Corbyn, a long-time eurosceptic, has kept Britain guessing over his own views, remaining ambiguous.

“Labour respects the decision of the British people in the referendum,” he told the conference, adding: “But no one can respect the conduct of the government since that vote took place”.

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