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Starmer could reshape UK-EU relationship

In the first general election after Britain’s formal exit from the EU, both Labour and Conservative leaders made no comment on Brexit. There were some vague wishes to “utilise its opportunities” or “make it work”, but otherwise nothing, The Conversation reports.

Keir Starmer, who has taken over as Prime Minister, will now have to deal with it, especially as more and more Britons now believe that the negatives of leaving the EU outweigh the positives. In a January poll, a majority were in favour of joining the EU.

Brexit has never been more popular, yet there remains a curious apathy to start reversing it. On balance, reunification seems a distant prospect. The Labour manifesto is unequivocal and even rules out joining the single market and customs union.

How to improve UK-EU relations

Many of the Conservatives’ headaches over Europe can be attributed to divisions dating back to the late 1980s. Labour has no equivalent to the Tories’ hardline Eurosceptic European Research Group, and under Starmer the party has embraced Blairite “Atlanticism”, advocating that the UK should be close to both Europe and North America. The new government should not have many parliamentary problems related to European policy.

Rather, difficulties may arise from forces outside Westminster: a popular media that supports Brexit and an EU eager to forget Britain’s exit from the EU as soon as possible.

To get round these, Starmer needs to find issues where the UK can (or at least should) take a leadership role, and where there is a convergence of interests with the EU.

Questions of leadership have continually haunted the UK in its relationship to Europe. Churchill’s pro-European stance clearly depended on British exceptionalism and primacy. By the time of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, Britain had decided to bypass the French and West German leadership of the European Economic Community by founding the European Free Trade Association, in which it was by far the largest economy, according to The Conversation.

In 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle rejected the UK’s application to join the EEC, unwilling to tolerate competing with an offshore power – he specifically cited the fact that the UK was an island and therefore too different from continental Europe.

Prior to her infamous (and misunderstood) speech in Bruges in 1988, Margaret Thatcher had a much warmer attitude to the European project than it now appears. She saw the UK as a potential co-leader, provided sovereignty was preserved.

Tony Blair, too, envisioned Britain as a European leader, although disagreements over the Iraq war led to a strain on the most important relationship.

Migration issue in UK

In Starmer’s view, a Britain in a leadership position in Europe (even outside the EU) could counter the nationalist sentiments of a restless press and right-wing Conservatives. There are two key issues on which it could take the lead: migration and trade.

At home, the spectacle of increased migration (after the Exit campaign promised to reduce it) seems to have at least contributed to Labour’s re-occupation of many northern constituencies in red-walled England, The Conversation reports.

But a sensible agreement with Europe on asylum and migration after Brexit has still not been reached. Instead we have a series of piecemeal co-operation initiatives, some of which have not even been finalised yet. This is partly because the Conservatives don’t want to be seen as re-joining the EU by stealth.

If the Starmer government takes the lead in forging a new deal, sharing asylum claims fairly between the EU and the UK, it could reduce the number of people making dangerous crossings across the channels.

Labour’s majority gives them an ideal opportunity to make long-term gains. The recent surge in support for the far-right in the European Parliament and French elections may force the EU to abandon its reluctance to engage with the UK if it helps defeat the perception of softness on migration.

Trade and security

Renegotiating Brexit withdrawal agreements en masse would take a lot of time and energy from the government (and would be unlikely to be accepted by the EU).

It would make much more sense to slow down the pace of agreeing rules on trade in goods and services with the EU. If joining a single market or customs union is even a distant prospect, it would be wise to reduce divergence as much as possible. Such divergence has not yet occurred on a significant scale, but climate and environmental regulation is one area where the UK is already noticeably behind the EU, according to The Conversation.

Given how significant trade between the UK and the EU remains, with 42% of UK exports going to the EU and 51% of imports coming from it, this will be beneficial to all parties even if accession to the EU does not become a fait accompli.

Security issue

Security is another real area of common interest. Labour’s manifesto promises “an ambitious new security pact between the UK and the EU.” In seeking to demonstrate the benefits of Brexit, Boris Johnson was inclined to emphasise the superiority of the UK’s response to the outbreak of the Ukrainian military conflict compared to that of the EU.

In fact, the UK and the EU are equally concerned about cyberattacks and election interference. The old bohemian image of a proudly independent Britain being swallowed up by European forces can now, of course, be discarded due to Brexit and the urgent need for co-operation.

Like all prime ministers, Starmer has to balance appeasing the domestic electorate with finding common ground with allies. Demonstrating leadership in Europe can show engagement while reassuring a British audience wary of quietly joining the EU. Migration and security are two areas where the harmony of interests is clear. Starmer needs to capitalise on the opportunities presented by having a relatively united party on European issues.

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