It seems highly likely that Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Heading a new government, he will want to improve relations with the European Union. Indeed, Labour has said that fixing the shattered ties with the EU is their top foreign policy priority.
What are ‘closer relations‘?
How should the EU react? And what specific actions should Starmer envisage?
The EU will want to take the opportunity to stabilise the relationship that has been both transformed and soured by Brexit. When it looks at its neighbours, it sees relations stretching from the actively hostile (Russia) through difficult (Serbia) to good but with some issues (Switzerland) to positively harmonious (Norway). Europe would like to be able to place the UK firmly at the latter end of the spectrum.
Why does the EU want closer relations with the UK?
Why? Well, the UK is important. Even though the legal relationship is not as close as with some other Western European neighbours, there are still significant links via the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). Economic ties are substantial: the UK is one of Europe’s largest trade partners and accounts for a good chunk of investment in the 27, and is also a destination for European investment abroad. It is a military ally through NATO of most of the member states (and a close ally in particular of France) and is actively engaged in military defence in several Central European and Baltic countries.
Perhaps even more striking are the cultural ties. Millions of us live in each other’s jurisdictions. The busiest extra-European air route is Dublin-London, followed by Amsterdam-London and Barcelona-London. A huge number of incoming tourists to Europe come from the UK, while, although hampered by Brexit, UK tourism remains dominated by European arrivals.
The arrival of a new leader is, while not a tabula rasa, a chance to paint over the stains of the past and start afresh. European leaders know that this won’t be about repairing the damage of Brexit. But they will be keen to put the relationship on a firm footing, with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and the Withdrawal Agreement as the bases.
Ways to build closer relations
This is something of a free hit for Starmer, then. Curiosity and the European desire to tend the relationship that has become overgrown with weeds since Brexit will see to that. So what should he be trying to do?
Firstly, rebuild trust. During the negotiations over the Good Friday Agreement there was deep trust and close personal relationships between both the elected and permanent governments of the UK and Ireland. Why? Because they knew each other very well from meetings at a European level. Officials and ministers ate together and could call each other up to head off potential issues.
So Starmer should propose regular UK–EU summits. That would restore these relationships at all levels and help build trust. As a tie-in, he should offer to begin work on a comprehensive defence and foreign policy treaty with Europe, perhaps as an annex to the TCA. Europe would be receptive.
It is likely that environmental issues will become a new wedge in the relationship if there is no work to remove potential blockages. Starmer should commit to following high European standards and propose whatever is necessary to put the UK inside the EU’s “carbon border”. The UK should look to join the EU’s energy markets. Europe knows that more bulk there means more robustness.
On trade and economics, if there remains an unwillingness to ask for a customs union with the EU or to join the EEA, then Starmer should not engage in fantasies. Chasing frictionless access to Europe’s goods market, breaking the four freedoms, is not a productive use of the moment that he will have. Europe’s red lines are well known, and railing against them will not end well. However, tie up whatever Europe is willing to offer on SPS and veterinary arrangements to ease food imports and exports, and do so cleanly and with the minimum of fuss. Accept that this will mean ECJ oversight and following standards without cavils.
Obstacles to closer relations
As important as they seem, thorny issues like money laundering and financial services should be parked until there have been some other successes. Bear in mind that as painful as Brexit has been for Britain, European business has been benefiting in some sectors, and so EU member states will find it hard to come to an agreed way forward in any case.
It is vital that Labour does not approach these early meetings as being about “making Brexit work”. Brexit is working for the EU. So it shouldn’t just focus on how to advance its own political agenda, say on refugees, unless it has a pretty good offer that demonstrates how Europe will benefit. Europe will not want to discuss anything that means reopening foundational treaties (the environment in the Council, not to mention potential referendums, makes this impossible right now), so any approach about new visa waivers or single market membership without free movement will be unfruitful. Leaders’ agendas are very full, and they will focus elsewhere if proposals are not useful.
There are tentative voices setting out a roadmap on the European side. Labour should listen to them, be receptive to proposals, and agree where it can. The idea of simplified youth visas for example, if offered, should be seized by Starmer with both hands: it should be very easy to agree to a proposal that will greatly benefit British youth (access to 27 countries) and will take some of the heat out of the Brexit debate in the UK.
Be positive about the EU
If I were to identify one thing that European leaders would appreciate and would mark a sea change from the previous regime in the UK it’s this: say the words “European Union”. Acknowledge how it has chosen to manage relations. Be positive about the EU as an entity and as a concept.
Europe is interested. As Michel Barnier has said, “The door … remains open any time, for you and some others … Everybody knows the conditions”.
The departure of the UK from the EU was once celebrated as an opportunity for reaping the ‘great progressive prize of a green Brexit’. Next week we’ll show that increasing divergences between the UK and EU regulations on key aspects cast doubts on these ambitions.