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UK Election campaign shows need for another reset in handling EU relations

David Henig / Jul 2024

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On my calculation, the UK is currently in its fourth distinctive approach to Brexit, all of which have so far been failures. Primarily this has been because the issue is too sprawling for the narrow ways in which it has been handled. Given the EU and strongly associated countries account for over 50% of UK trade, are central to regulatory policy, important in migration and energy, and crucial for stability in Northern Ireland, there is a need for a big-picture understanding and approach.

To recap. First came the post-2016-referendum confusion, the simplicity of Brexit means Brexit, and the setting of red lines such as leaving the single market that hadn’t been fully thought through. Next came the extreme secrecy as a small team tried to negotiate a special deal with the EU while making this acceptable to MPs and largely failed on both counts. Following this came the combination of aggression and capitulation which delivered deals and no great desire on either side to ever talk again.

Most recently we have had the attempt to forget the whole trauma ever happened under the Sunak government, in which some progress has been made not least on stabilising the Northern Ireland Protocol with the Windsor Framework. Technical relations have improved, but the politics have remained rather frozen.

Labour’s plan as it seemed was to extend this period while improving the politics simply by being a new government that didn’t contain so many individuals actively hostile to the EU. Small deals such as on SPS, touring artists, and professional qualifications would take some of the roughest edges of the trading relationship away.

An increasingly surreal election debate about Brexit, couched in numerous “why aren’t we talking about Brexit” articles, has shown that Labour will need a new approach in government. Put simply, what has been shown is that the UK is not over the referendum and the traumas afterwards, has an immature understanding of its new position, and too many issues with a European dimension that include growth and security.

In terms of the overall relationship, improving matters within the existing framework is the only choice for several reasons. This is necessary for UK policy goals, that more wouldn’t be on offer from the EU until trust is restored, and raking over past debates on single market, customs union or dynamic alignment recalls the deeply traumatic period in recent UK political history. Around the Labour Party as across the relationship there are those who claim personal relationships can guarantee special treatment beyond this, who will be attractive to politicians but are best ignored.

What has become clear in recent weeks is that this is not however sufficient, that Labour will also have to explain their actions, create more of a national conversation, and resist those who will criticise them for doing too much or too little. Perhaps the Conservative Party will be of little importance after the election, but the print media will probably remain hostile to EU ties. Meanwhile on the other side we can probably expect a Labour version of the ERG Parliamentary group, but in reverse, one that pushes for closer ties.

To be fair there are signs that some senior Labour figures understand this, with talk of starting with security talks that lead towards a summit that lays the groundwork for improvements. Equally however it isn’t entirely clear that all are entirely in the same place. Of course, secrecy is often a way to cover up divides, but as we’ve seen it just doesn’t work. Far better to finally bring a big tent approach to EU relations, to show the workings a little more, setting realistic goals and delivering them.

What of the EU in all this? Certainly relations with neighbours are always tricky given it is such a regional hegemon, and what is new is the UK being a more significant country as well as ex-member. This is the EU’s 3rd most important external relationship after the US and China, and hasn’t always been seen as such. With Russia and the possibility of President Trump in minds, there is use for strong UK relations. Then again, there is deep distrust in a UK that doesn’t want to take EU asks seriously and is always expected to try and play divide and rule.

Within the Commission, there is a pro-UK caucus that can be deployed, but equally there are blockers including at senior levels, and a much larger group with simply much bigger things on their minds. Navigating this will need both strong political relations and a sure touch at official level to navigate a complex and prickly organisation to negotiate with. To give an example, Labour’s failure to respond positively so far to EU asks on youth mobility has gone down very badly.

As could have been predicted. For throughout the last eight years those of us with extensive ties in both London and Brussels have mostly been looking on in disbelief at UK political mishandling of Brexit, while being almost completely excluded from any involvement. Work the Brussels coffee circuit, talk to Commission and Member State officials, understand their politics, and you can quickly get a picture. Put that together with others in the same space and the confidence increases – hence why a very early Labour priority should be to draw on this hitherto untapped knowledge base.

No EU neighbour has easy relations or negotiations, that is the nature of the choice made to live next door to such a bloc. Part of the UK’s narrative problem has been to think this was possible, or even that we called the shots. Which makes it even more important that Labour changes the tune, to making this about normal international relations to meet shared challenges like climate change and Russia, and to support domestic goals like growth.

There’s a path to the UK and EU deepening relations. That needs the supporting narrative as well as negotiating skills.

David Henig

David Henig

July 2024

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