Keir Starmer has announced in an interview with the Financial Times that a future Labour government would seek a “better” deal with the European Union. Our Trade and Cooperation Agreement with Brussels that Boris Johnson negotiated is due to be reviewed in 2025. Starmer sees this as an “important” opportunity for our association with our local continent on a more even keel.
The Labour leader gave several reasons for wanting a renewed agreement. He said that “everyone recognises that the deal Johnson struck is not a good deal” since it was too thin. His hope is that “more can be achieved across the board”. By pledging a new security agreement, Starmer is looking for movement on veterinary border checks and other sources of friction.
As a former Shadow Brexit Secretary, it is no surprise that Starmer sees better relations with Brussels as a priority. He also says he is thinking about “future generations” – like his own children – when wanting to make our relationship work. Rachel Reeves and himself apparently see closer trading links with Brussels as a way of cutting import and living costs.
Unfortunately for Starmer, his plans for a rebalanced the TCA face two major stumbling blocks. The first are those elements of his party pushing him towards a harder anti-Brexit stance. The second – and rather more important for any renegotiated deal – is the apathy of the European Union itself.
Starmer has made clear that Labour are not currently seeking to re-enter the Single Market and Customs Union. His own instincts may be those of a re-joiner. He did advocate for a second referendum, and his recent reshuffle saw the appointment of a number of notable pro-Europeans, such as Hilary Benn and Chris Bryant. Polls also suggest the public thinks Brexit has gone badly. But Starmer is wary of giving the Conservatives the opportunity to wave the bloody Eurosceptic shirt and suggest Brexit is being reversed.
The problem with that – and it’s one Theresa May never seemed to understand, despite Brussels continually telling her that no “cherry-picking” was allowed – is that the EU is uninterested in creating a bespoke trading arrangement with Britain. We are either members or not. Johnson’s deal may have been limited. But any trade agreement will be, compared to membership.
As a well-timed report from UK in a Changing Europe points out, the current obligation to “review” the current agreement is suitably vague, and Brussels is largely happy with the agreement. The EU has no ambition to change the agreement and merely wants to ensure it is working properly. The last thing on the Commission’s priority list is another tedious few years of renegotiating Brexit.
There are areas in which Brussels wants something from Britain, such as youth mobility or defence. But the EU is wary of spending significant time and resources – at a time when it is not short of other challenges – reviewing and changing an agreement it is satisfied with. After all, what if it is junked by another future government? Starmer is barking up the wrong tree.
As such, the best Labour can likely hope for is a tidying up of various parts of the agreement, the completion of areas such as vaccine policy that were missed in the original negotiations, and some form of deal on particular issues like re-joining the Erasmus scheme. Any Labour member hoping to re-enter the EU by the back door will be deeply disappointed.
Yet if Starmer is enough of a committed Europhile to think better trading relations with Brussels is crucial to our future prosperity, another opportunity prevents itself. In Opposition, he might have to keep schtum about his antipathy to Brexit and desire to take us back in. But once in office, he will have more freedom of movement (pun intended) to slowly overturn our departure.
Any significant agreement with the EU would require continuous alignment between Westminster and Brussels in terms of regulation. Any efforts to diverge, scrap legislation, or compete in regulatory terms would be junked. We would be voluntarily following rules over which we had no say. It is a pill one imagines Starmer would swallow.
Starmer’s policy of renegotiating the TCA to save his children’s futures may morph into one, to coin a phrase, of shadowing the Customs Union. I’m not sure the late Nigel Lawson would have been impressed.