Andrew Grice / Jan 2023
With the opposition Labour Party enjoying a consistent 20-point lead in the opinion polls, minds in Westminster and Brussels are turning to what a government led by Keir Starmer would mean for EU-UK relations.
It is not a debate Starmer wishes to join. First, he must win power, and that means regaining a swathe of seats in the North and Midlands “red wall” in which 2016 Leave voters switched from Labour to the Conservatives at the 2019 general election. Starmer knows the Tories will play the “Europe card” against him at the election expected next year; Tory strategists think it is his weak point as a 2016 Remainer who later persuaded Labour to back a second referendum.
This explains Starmer’s three-clause insurance policy: Labour will not re-join the single market or customs union or support free movement, coupled with a pledge to “make Brexit work,” which is hardly music to Brussels ears. Although he has begun to sound out EU leaders in private about how trade friction could be reduced, Starmer’s cautious public stance frustrates his party’s strong Remain wing --especially as public opinion, rather than accepting Brexit as a done deal, is turning against as Leave voters judge it is harming the economy. Some 56 per cent of people say they would now vote to re-join the EU, up from 45 per cent a year ago. Support for Brexit is at its lowest level since the 2016 referendum; only one in three people now thinks leaving the EU was the right thing to do.
Privately, pro-European members of Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet insist a Labour government would bring about a sea change in UK-EU relations from day one. As one told me: “As ministers, we would be taking decisions every day that impacted on the relationship. Sensible co-operation to mutual benefit would transform the atmosphere.”
Labour would seek a security pact with the EU, covering energy, space and new technology as well as defence.
There would be regular summits and structured dialogue on foreign policy at both political and official level. A Starmer government would reduce friction on food, agricultural, medical and veterinary goods; join the Horizon research programme; enhance mutual recognition of professional standards and qualifications and improve links between universities and students.
While Labour’s pro-European frontbenchers rule out re-joining the single market or customs union during a first five-year term, some hope the party might take a bolder stance at the following election, due in 2029. “We would see where our approach in government takes us in terms of public opinion,” one said.
However, Starmer allies are more cautious. They suggest the key vehicle for change will be the review of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) signed by Boris Johnson already scheduled in 2025. “Preparations for the review will be starting in 2024 in any case,” one said. Labour insiders suggest the review will not be a technical box-ticking exercise handled by officials but a more substantive drive to reduce trade friction across the board. Labour ministers would work closely with business with the hope of giving companies the changes they want -- which would give them political cover.
However, such an exercise would not be a quick fix; it would involve hard pounding and could take two years. Labour's pro-Europeans might discover it harder to “repair the holes” Johnson’s deal than they now imagine.
Sensible Labour politicians realise there will be little appetite in Brussels for a wholesale renegotiation and little incentive when the current agreement’s focus on goods rather than services suits the EU nicely. There would inevitably be limits on how much a Labour government could achieve while remaining outside the single market. “We would have to bring something to the table; it would require a lot of movement by both sides,” one Starmer adviser admitted.
If Labour regained power after 14 years in the wilderness, the EU-UK relationship would change – but it would be a case of evolution, not revolution. In the meantime, the Tories will remain in denial in public about Brexit’s increasingly obvious downsides and Labour will follow public opinion on the issue rather than lead it.