Stephen Castle / Jan 2024
It has been a busy few months for Nigel Farage, the Brexit campaigner and former long-serving member of the European Parliament. In December he raised his profile by appearing on “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here,” a reality TV show filmed in the Australian jungle (where his on screen challenges included eating a “penis pizza” adorned with sheep, bull, pig and crocodile genitalia.)
Two months earlier he was the centre of attention at the annual conference of the country’s governing Conservative Party which he attended for the right wing TV channel GB News. And all this has prompted excited talk of him rejoining the Tories whom he quit in the 1990s.
Why should any of this be of interest in Brussels? Despite numerous attempts Mr. Farage has never been elected to the British Parliament and anyway the Conservatives face a general election that opinion polls suggest they will lose.
Yet the speculation about Mr. Farage’s future is a warning sign that, even after more than seven exhausting years, Brexit is for some in Britain, unfinished business.
And that is worth noting as decisions loom about the country’s relations with the E.U. ahead of a review of the existing trade and cooperation agreement in 2026 – talks that could smooth relations between London and Brussels and neutralize the legacy of Brexit as a political issue.
On the surface, things are finally on an even keel between London and Brussels after last year’s Windsor Framework deal on post-Brexit trade for Northern Ireland struck by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He has largely proved a pragmatic interlocutor who has dialed down the aggressive rhetoric of his predecessor but one, Boris Johnson.
Riding high in the polls, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, wants closer ties with the E.U. and has no desire to diverge on economic policy even if single market or customs union membership is off limits.
So, it is hardly surprising that some in Brussels see little need to commit energy to the review process let alone to compromise. Most are heartily sick of the Brexit saga which ultimately yielded trade arrangements so one-sided and favorable to the European Union that, at one point, the negotiation was described as Europe’s “catastrophic success.”
The swift implosion of Liz Truss’s ill-fated government in 2022 then seemed to demonstrate conclusively that the dream among hard line Brexit supporters of creating a vibrant, low tax, British economy diverging from, and undercutting, continental Europe was just that: a dream.
Among European diplomats one reflex is to play hard ball with the British, to regard the coming discussion as simply a technical review, rather than an opportunity to improve the trade deal, and to insist that if Britain wants to reduce friction at the borders of the single market, then London will have to offer concessions in return.
In trade negotiations, after all, no-one gets something for nothing, and these discussions are asymmetrical given the size of Europe’s trading area.
Yet there are good reasons for Brussels to go the extra mile to create a more stable relationship with Britain. For one thing there has never been a more important time to solidify foreign policy, security and defence cooperation with the British.
For another, there is no guarantee that Britain’s current mood of Euro-pragmatism will last.
If Mr. Sunak defies expectations and stays in Downing Street after the next election, he is likely only to scrape home, leaving him a weak prime minister facing an uncertain future.
If Mr. Starmer wins as expected – even with a comfortable majority -- his government will inherit a stagnant economy, high debt levels and few resources as he struggles to revive crumbling public services.
Should a Labour government disappoint voters, the Conservative Party will have an opportunity to return to power later in the decade, under a different leader, so its internal machinations are worth watching.
Assuming Mr. Sunak quits or is eventually forced out after the general election, a shortlist of two potential replacements would be chosen by Tory members of Parliament but the final choice would lie in the hands of Conservative party activists.
This self-selecting, group usually plumps for the most right wing candidate on offer and is even more likely to do so next time. After 14, grueling, years in government, those activists still campaigning for an unpopular party are likely to be a rump of more ideological right wingers.
And, on their wing of the Conservative Party, there is still an appetite for policies that follow the economic logic of Brexit: deregulate, cut taxes, undercut the European Union and siphon off investment and employment from it.
Such ideas will almost certainly be championed by Mr. Farage either as an influential member of Reform UK (the successor to the Brexit Party he once led) or as a member of the Conservative Party. And his return to its ranks as a prodigal son after the election is not quite as fanciful as some imagine.
In any contest to replace Mr. Sunak, the two front-runners to succeed him are likely to be asked whether they would welcome Mr. Farage back into Conservative ranks. To win the votes of right-wing party members, the answer will have to be “yes” – and that would make it hard to stop Mr. Farage later becoming a Conservative member of Parliament with an outsized influence, and a platform to pitch for its leadership.
While none of that is certain, the political direction of the Conservative Party should concentrate minds in Brussels.
After the Brexit referendum in Britain in 2016, European policy makers saw the threat to the single market as existential, and any new push to undermine it would be another headache they could do without.
For the European Union there is a looming opportunity to stabilize its relationship with London, to smooth trade flows and help neutralize the fallout from Brexit as a political issue in Britain.
The British prime minister at the table after the election will almost certainly want to strike a deal. The one after that might not.