Denis MacShane / Oct 2023
In the middle of the last decade Europe was convulsed as Britain voted to support a right-wing nationalist project, Brexit, and Poland elected an anti-EU right-wing nationalist anti-women project that campaigned against full EU values, laws and partnership.
Today the PiS nationalist experiment is over as the people of Poland vote for Europe. And every opinion poll in Britain says a majority regard Brexit as being very negative for the UK.
So are politicians getting the message? Is Labour getting smarter on Europe? Are the Tories? The BBC reports that Christian Lindner, leader of the FDP and Finance Minister in the shaky coalition government in Berlin, has called for talks with London on damage Brexit is doing to trade.
Lindner is an outlier in German politics, guardian of right-wing Ordoliberalismus. He does not speak for the German government. His party has just 5 MEPs out of 705 members of the European Parliament where he is seen as a block to the reform, pro-growth ideas of the Commission and President Macron.
Any amelioration of the Treaty on Brexit trade with the EU needs the agreement of 27 sovereign governments. It would require the UK government to accept EU rules and offer reciprocity. It is unlikely this can happen under the Sunak government. He may accept that Brexit has not worked out well but his party and the MPs elected on the Johnson liar ticket in 2019 cannot.
So attention now focuses on the likelihood according to polls that next year a Labour led government will take over. In his keynote speech to the Labour Party conference Sir Keir Starmer accused the Tories of telling CEOs “Brexit would only bring benefits to your business.” Hardly a day goes by without a report on the negative impact Brexit is having on British business.
Last year the Labour leader’s line was that he would “Make Brexit Work.” That was first used by Theresa May when she became prime minister and declared in 2016 “It will be the responsibility of everyone sitting around the Cabinet table to make Brexit work for Britain.” Whatever the efforts of her and any of successors as Brexit prime ministers to make Brexit work, voters are not convinced. It has long been an article of faith in the top echelons of Labour that so called ‘red wall’ voters were passionate Brexiters and voted strongly for Boris Johnson to ‘get Brexit done.”
Yet a startling poll finding from Deltapoll published on the eve of the Labour conference showed that 69% of red wall voters (as well as other voters in seats Tories won from Labour in 2019) now think that Brexit has damaged their living standards. Deltapoll also showed 53% blaming Brexit for the state of the economy. Finally in in a surprising finding, 52% support free movement for British and EU citizens provided those moving between the Continent and Britain have a job.
In other recent polls, more than 50 per cent say that if a new referendum were held they would vote to go back into the EU. To be sure, polls are not votes and the 2016 decision was validated in general elections in 2017 and 2019. Today businesses point out the damage being done, not so much by the 2016 vote, but the harsh and excessive interpretation put on it once Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson plucked from the Scotch whisky industry a former Foreign Office official, David Frost, whose highest FCO posting had been to Denmark. Johnson gave him a peerage and sent him off to do battle with the world’s most experienced trade negotiators in Brussels.
Poor Frost came back with the worst ever trade Treaty in British history. In 1373 Edward III negotiated the first such Treaty with the King of Portugal. This began the process of London creating a centuries-old network of Treaty law to create the international legal framework for trade with other nations.
Yet our political class - Conservative, Labour and LibDem - refuse even to discuss the problems caused by Lord Frost’s failure to negotiate an intelligent Brexit. They are not entirely to be blamed. Even the faintest hint that the Frost Treaty is flawed brings a hurricane of hysteria from ageing Brexit warriors like Nigel Farage and their media epigones, claiming that this means Rejoin.
This claim is nonsense and has been repeatedly disavowed by Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey, as well as by all pro-European Tories. No one in any EU capital wants a Britain back that is still so divided on Europe, with a populist media and demagogic tribunes denouncing partnership across the Channel.
Before 2016 an ever widening gap opened on Europe between politicians and people. It is just as wide today as our political leaders in public or at their party conferences, as well as key media influencers like the BBC, are still unwilling to discuss Europe and Brexit in a grown-up way.
Rishi Sunak has now agreed to partly reconnect to Europe by agreeing to EU rules on trade with Northern Ireland, grandiosely called “The Windsor Framework.” He has agreed to rejoin the EU Horizon programme of scientific and inter-university collaboration even if he still places big barriers to scientists and researchers coming from the EU to work in Britain.
He has binned his proposed bill to rename and re-legislate every one of 4000 or more joint regulations covering the chemical and other industries that can only work and trade on the basis of international rules. The EU’s CEE kite-mark will continue to apply in Britain, He is again delaying borders checks on European food products that fill our supermarket shelves.
Sunak has participated fully in the European Political Community that groups EU and non-EU nations like Britain, Kosovo, Armenia, North Macedonia, Turkey, even Azerbaijan. The EPC was set up by President Macron last year. Sunak used its recent meeting in Granada to work with Italy’s rightist Prime minister, Georgia Meloni, to discuss ways of reducing migrant inflow pressures. Their ideas involved Britain re-connecting to Frontex, the EU frontier control agency.
This is a grandmother’s footsteps game of slowly reconnecting to Europe without using the dreaded “R” – Rejoin word.
Sunak is even proposing a school leaving diploma at age 18 based on competence in maths and English. This is the same as the EU Baccalauréat exam in France or Abitur in Germany.
David Lammy, Labour's shadow foreign secretary, has proposed other ways Britain can realign with EU norms and rules in a number of areas while still proclaiming the mantra of no return to the Single Market, Customs Union or letting Brits work freely and even live in the EU.
So far no-one has really paid much attention to this soft-shoe shuffle back towards Europe. But after the next election and if as seems likely there is a new government the question of what next for Britain and Europe will be a key political issue.