Keir Starmer accepts that Brexit will not be reversed in the foreseeable future. But he believes that this need not mean losing all the benefits of membership. The options may not be ideal, but perhaps there is a better form of Brexit than the one the current government is pursuing.
The EU won’t have us
The EU will probably not accept us back into membership. We were difficult partners when we were in, and Brexit caused huge disruption. Since then, we have destroyed trust that we will behave decently (or even legally). They don’t believe there is a settled public will in the UK (and the polling certainly doesn’t show that), so we might turn round and leave again.
Readmittance requires approval by the EU Parliament and Institutions, and unanimity of the member states, some of whom have particular reasons to block us. Furthermore, as an applicant state, we would lose our budget rebate, and probably be required to join the Schengen accord and the Euro, making a new deal much less popular than what we had before Brexit.
A majority of people think Brexit was a mistake, but polling does not show a clear majority for reopening the debate, and most people don’t want another divisive battle over it. Only a third of people think that the EU would consider an application, and only a quarter think it is likely that we will rejoin the EU in the next ten years.
Polls suggest that most leave voters are no longer very interested in Brexit. But they are sensitive to betrayal of “the will of the people”. For them, there are four totemic issues: rejoining the EU, the customs union and single market and free movement. That is to do with symbolism as much as specific issues: if Labour campaigns for any of those, the dormant Brexit campaigners, and the Conservative party, would be re-energised.
Unlike leavers, remainers are still angry. Some believe that a new passionate rejoin campaign could win over public opinion. Some would rather die heroically on the battlefield than admit that the battle is lost and seek a treaty.
Rescuing our trade
It is now evident that Brexit is seriously damaging our economy and risks the survival of many small businesses. It is one of the reasons why our economic recovery from Covid is projected to fall behind all G20 countries.
However, we are still aligned with the EU on most of the regulations on issues like food, animal welfare, pharmaceuticals and financial services, which we helped to create when we were members. So far, there have been few moves to abandon any of the significant ones, so agreeing to retain them would be relatively easy. That might block recent deals, like that with Australia (which endangers our farming industry) but it could remove most of the barriers which are hampering EU trade. Most critically, they would remove most of the problems of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which have led us to the brink of breaking international law, and a trade war.
Freedom of movement is more difficult. Brexit has undoubtedly exacerbated the labour and skills shortages which are hamstringing our economy. But the issue was never mainly about economics. For remainers it is about “our” rights to move freely around Europe. For leavers it is about “other people’s” rights to “flood” into the UK, taking jobs and overloading public services and housing.
Polling evidence suggests that, for most leave voters, the issue was not about stopping movement, but controlling it. So, some controls need to stay, barring us from the Single Market. However, the “hostile environment” policies of the present government have set out to deliberately make those controls difficult.
It is quite conceivable that we could agree a more flexible approach with the EU. Perhaps over time, the checks could be toned down, and the rights to stay extended, without eroding the principle that the UK decides who can and cannot come into the country. It is not what passionate remainers want, but it is much better than what we have.
There is a host of other issues where agreement should be possible, once we have accepted the principle that, like Norway, we benefit from alignment, even when we have no say in the rules. Starmer suggests some of these, and there are others: mutual recognition of qualifications, participation in European research programmes and student exchanges, sharing of data, and cooperation on policing and terrorism. We might even return to the EU’s Dublin agreement on refugees, which would allow us, once again, to return migrants arriving in the UK to the country they came from.
Taking back control
Realistically, we can choose a bad deal or a worse one. The “worse” is to continue down the present path, of hostile relations with the EU. We retain “control”, at the price of economic damage, reduced security, and damaged international reputation. The “bad” deal is to accept that the UK will not rejoin the EU, the Single Market or the Customs Union, but carefully and progressively negotiate detailed agreements which align us with EU rules and practices, to minimise the barriers. Without taking on the grand battle, over time, we would approach something equivalent to the customs union.
The people who voted leave are unlikely to see negotiations on such issues as phytosanitary regulations on food, as massive issues of principle. So, the second option could move towards the benefits of membership without provoking another Brexit war.
Given that Brexit is the reality, Starmer has chosen the second, “bad”, option. The media attention to his speech will have made it clear to most leavers that he is not going to reopen the battle to rejoin. The first poll results suggest that he has public support. This neutralises the issue which won the Conservatives the 2019 election. Though it is not what most remainers want, this may be an important positive turning point in the debate.