The writer is an FT contributing editor
Sir Keir Starmer is cautious about matters European. To the chagrin of many ardent pro-Europeans, the UK’s opposition leader rules out a dash back into the arms of Brussels if, as the opinion polls suggest, his Labour party wins the next general election. Specifically, there would be no speedy return to the EU single market. With public opinion hardening against Brexit, Starmer stands accused of timidity. He should plead guilty to realism.
Before, during and after its membership of the EU, both sides of the British argument have shared one delusion about the nation’s relationship with the rest of Europe. The organising assumption has most often been that the British can decide among themselves about the terms of the engagement and take for granted the acquiescence of their partners.
Ignorance and hubris reached a nadir among Brexiters during the referendum debate. Britain had only to vote to depart and it would then dictate to the other 27 the shape of future ties. In the boast of prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove, the UK would “hold all the cards”. Or in Boris Johnson’s phrase, it would have its cake and eat it.
The absurdity, not to say mendacity, of such claims does not absolve those pro-Europeans who sometimes also forget that the French, Germans and Italians have their own voters and their own political priorities and interests. They might recall that when Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, decided to apply for entry in 1961 he thought it enough to bring the Tory party around. He did so diligently, and received a rude shock when Charles de Gaulle, France’s president, issued a firm “Non”.
The impatience with Starmer is explicable. He is temperamentally risk-averse. The polls show the anti-European tide has turned. The Brexiters did not promise recession, runaway inflation and falling incomes, but that is what we have got. Businesses, small and large, have found a voice in challenging Brexit. A sizeable majority of voters tell opinion polls that Brexit has gone badly and a smaller but consistent majority that the 2016 vote was a mistake.
One step at a time. Pro-Europeans who want Starmer to grab an opportunity to turn back the clock on the referendum are making Macmillan’s mistake. EU governments have views of their own. The Labour leader’s pre-election caution fits the European political reality.
As things stand, the election due within two years will be fought on the dismal economic record of a divided and exhausted Tory party. In the circumstances, why would the leader of an opposition party riding high in the polls change the subject by setting out grandiose ambitions for re-engagement with Brussels?
For their part, most EU governments would like a closer relationship with the UK, but their enthusiasm for a reset is strictly conditional. The EU has “got over” Brexit, European policymakers will tell you. The world did not fall apart when Britain left. EU business has continued — and in many instances has been running more smoothly in the absence of Brits throwing grit into the Brussels machine. As for new trade barriers, European industry has more important challenges, such as adjusting to higher energy prices and a more difficult relationship with China.
So yes, a more co-operative relationship and a government in London warranting the EU’s trust would be welcome. But the 27 are not about to accept a new and deep entanglement until they are sure the British will not change their minds again. Most likely it will take at least two election cycles, and two defeats, to persuade the Conservatives that Britain should rejoin its own continent.
None of this is to say the cross-Channel relationship cannot be greatly improved — that Starmer cannot begin to rebuild some of the bridges so carelessly blown up by the Tories. Ending the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol would be a start. Realigning British standards for food and agricultural products with the EU would take a fair amount of the friction out of trade.
The Ukraine war testifies to deeply intertwined foreign policy and security interests. Britain’s economic as well as security interests lie in close defence collaboration. Rejoining EU research and education projects such as Horizon, Galileo and Erasmus would also be an obvious ask for Starmer. The planned 2025 review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement should be an occasion to dismantle some of the economic barriers.
All of this will take time. New initiatives will need to be negotiated not demanded. There will be a price to pay. Above all, the British approach should embrace an unfamiliar humility — a recognition, if nothing else, that the EU still holds most of the cards.