Friday

1st Mar 2024

Opinion

What will the next UK Labour government do about Brexit?

  • Opposition Labour party leader, Sir Keir Stamer. There is one reason why he will need to think about Europe — necessity (Photo: The Labour party)
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Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain's Labour party, is a cautious man.

With his party's lead of 20 points over the ruling Conservatives, he is closer to entering Downing Street than he has ever been.

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Yet, on one of the most defining issues of the day — Britain's post-Brexit relationship with the European Union — his unyielding instinct is caution. He has ruled out returning to the single market and the customs union, instead pledging to "make Brexit work" under his government.

The Labour leader's reluctance to discuss Brexit is understandable from an electoral standpoint. With the general election approximately a year away, his party needs to regain some of the voters who were swayed by Boris Johnson and voted Conservative in 2019, many of whom supported leaving the EU in the controversial 2016 referendum.

Reopening old battles risks exposing Labour to attacks from the Conservatives, which they want to avoid at all costs.

Moreover, there appears to be little for Labour to gain by making Europe an electoral issue.

Most of the British public is more concerned about the cost of living and struggling public services and prefers not to revisit the days when the battle over Brexit dominated the news.

The strongly pro-European constituencies are already in Labour's hands anyway. And, in Scotland, where the party must take over a dozen seats for an outright majority in Westminster, Labour has benefited from the Scottish nationalists' disarray, which has effectively de-risked its position on Europe.

To expect Labour to shift its position before voters go to the polls would be to misunderstand these electoral dynamics and underestimate the resoluteness with which Starmer is approaching the task of getting into power.

However, there is one reason why he will need to think about Europe: necessity.

Labour's first term in government will be dominated by the task of restoring growth of the underperforming British economy without either substantially raising taxes or increasing borrowing.

If Labour is serious about reviving growth, looking for practical ways to reduce trading barriers with a market that accounts for nearly half of all of Britain's trade will not be a choice but a necessity for the future government.

In its defence, Labour has proposed some ideas to that end.

Mini-measures

This includes a new veterinary agreement to reduce friction in trading agrifoods, better mobility provisions to ease movement of working professionals traveling to and from EU countries, and a set of measures like a regular EU-UK political summit that could improve trust in bilateral relations.

The forthcoming review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, scheduled for 2026, is seen as one possible avenue to achieve these changes.

These are imminently sensible ideas, but the Labour government will face a twofold challenge to make them work.

First, it will have to convince Brussels and EU governments that they should discuss improving the post-Brexit relationship with London. EU officials have already pushed back against any idea that the review of the TCA can serve as an opportunity to revisit the deal.

The second challenge is that the current proposals, which are designed to tinker with the edges of the agreement rather than to fundamentally rethink it, are unlikely to significantly impact Britain's growth trajectory.

While reducing some trade frictions may improve margins, it raises the uncomfortable question of whether improving margins is a prize worthy of a substantial investment of political capital that resetting the relations with Brussels will inevitably require.

This may read like a gloomy prospect, but there is still something Starmer can do: be clearer in his goals and more precise in what he can offer to his counterparts in Brussels and other EU capitals.

The first thing he must consider is in which areas the UK would be willing to align with EU rules and regulations to improve market access.

Initially, the Labour government could simply decide to align on a voluntary basis so that the duplication costs of having to comply with two diverging sets of regulations are reduced for British manufacturers.

Later, this commitment could help Britain to provide some reassurance to the EU that the government is not looking to diverge fundamentally from the EU's regulatory model, opening up a path to some sort of mutual recognition arrangement covering trade in manufactured and agricultural goods.

However, even then, what is 'in it' for Brussels and other EU capitals? The debates about Brexit are now considered a distant past within the EU. More fundamental questions about the bloc's enlargement, the Ukraine war, and its wider place in the world amid the US-China rivalry will dominate the in-tray of the next EU administration.

What's on the table?

For the UK to convince the EU that it has something to offer, Labour must therefore be strategic about what it puts on the table.

EU governments have expressed interest in deepening cooperation on foreign policy and defence, as well as implementing a reciprocal youth exchange program that would enable young people to move between the UK and EU countries more easily, all of which the Labour government could offer.

However, ultimately securing a better deal will depend on Labour's responses to the fundamentals: Will it accept a role for the European Court of Justice in exchange for a closer economic relationship? Will it accept stronger level-playing field provisions? And how robust are the assurances that it can provide in these areas?

Until now, the Labour party has avoided discussing Brexit as part of its careful electoral strategy.

However, if the Labour government aims to restore growth to the British economy, it will have to develop a solid European strategy and address the difficult questions that this strategy would inevitably raise. And that requires starting the necessary groundwork today.

Author bio

Anton Spisak is a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, based in London. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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