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LONDON – The opposition Labour Party is trying to turn Britain's election into a tale of two Brexits.
The left-of-center party promised Tuesday that if it wins it will seek a "smart and flexible" EU divorce and guarantee European Union nationals they can stay in Britain. In contrast, it accused the Conservative government of "rigidity and recklessness" in its approach to leaving the EU.
In a speech in London, Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the largely pro-EU party would not seek to reverse voters' decision to quit the bloc.
"The Labour Party cannot spend all its time trying to rub out yesterday," he said, arguing that Labour must "genuinely accept the result" of last year's referendum.
Prime Minister Theresa May says giving her Conservatives a bigger majority in the June 8 parliamentary election will strengthen Britain's hand in EU exit negotiations.
Starmer accused May's government of "taking option after option off the table" before talks even start. May has ruled out trying to keep Britain in the EU's single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union.
Starmer said a Labour government would tear up May's negotiating plan and seek to retain the "benefits" of single-market membership. He acknowledged, however," that the U.K. will not be able to remain in the single market once it ends freedom of movement from EU countries. Controlling immigration was a key issue for many Britons who voted to leave the bloc.
Starmer said "we accept that immigration rules are going to have to change when we leave the EU."
"We accept that things will have to change," he said. "But we don't accept that Brexit has to mean whatever Theresa May says it means."
Starmer called it "shameful" that Britain has not guaranteed that the 3 million EU citizens living in the U.K. will be able to stay. He said a Labour government would make that promise "on day one."
Britain and the EU have said that securing the rights of Europeans in Britain — and of 1 million U.K. citizens living elsewhere in the bloc — will be a priority when divorce negotiations begin after the U.K. election.
Starmer said Labour would ditch May's plan for a Great Repeal Bill — which will transpose all EU law into British law when the country leaves the bloc — and replace it with an EU Rights and Protections Bill to ensure that workplace rights and environmental standards are not watered down after Brexit.
Polls put Labour a long way behind May's Conservatives as the election campaign begins, and the opposition party has been accused of offering a muddled position on Brexit.
While Starmer's promise to "rebuild our relations with our EU partners" differed in tone from Conservative pronouncements, it was short on specifics. Starmer did not spell out what compromises a Labour government would be willing to make in return for access to EU markets.
Most Labour lawmakers — and most Conservatives, including May — argued before last year's referendum that Britain should remain in the EU. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who spent decades criticizing the EU, was a lukewarm supporter of continued membership.
"Jeremy Corbyn is too weak and floundering to get a good deal in the Brexit negotiations," said the government's Brexit Secretary, David Davis.
"Only a vote for the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May on June 8 will deliver a Brexit deal in Britain's national interest," he said.