Starmer must seize the chance to rethink the UK-Europe relationship – here’s how he can do it


In the first general election since the UK officially left the EU, both Labour and Conservative leaders were conspicuously mute about Brexit. There have been some vague aspirations to “seize its opportunities” or “make it work”, but otherwise, nothing.

As prime minister, Keir Starmer will have to deal with it, particularly as more Britons now found the negatives of leaving the EU outweigh the positives. In a January survey, a majority supported rejoining.

Brexit has never been less popular, and yet there remains a curious apathy about actually beginning to reverse it. All in all, rejoining seems a distant prospect. The Labour manifesto is unequivocal, even ruling out joining the single market and customs union.

So what options does Starmer have to improve relations with the EU?

Many Conservative headaches around Europe can be ascribed to divisions that have emerged since the late 1980s. Labour has no equivalent of the hardline Tory eurosceptic European Research Group, and under Starmer the party has embraced a Blairite “Atlanticism”, advocating for the UK to be close to both Europe and North America. The new government should face few parliamentary problems around European policy.

Rather, it is forces outside Westminster that could cause difficulties: popular Brexit-supporting media and an EU anxious to move on from the UK’s exit.

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

Questions of leadership have constantly dogged the UK’s attitude to Europe. Churchill’s pro-Europeanism was explicitly dependent on British exceptionalism and primacy. By the time of the 1957 treaty of Rome, the UK chose to sidestep 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.

In 1963, France’s Charles De Gaulle rebuffed Britain’s EEC application, unable to tolerate rivalry with an offshore power – he specifically referred to Britain being an island and thus too different from continental Europe.

Prior to her notorious (and misunderstood 1988 Bruges speech, Margaret Thatcher was far warmer to the European project than is now represented. She saw the UK as a potential co-leader, as long as sovereignty was maintained.

Tony Blair, too, envisaged the UK in a European leadership role, even though disagreements over the Iraq war strained the most important relationships.

Starmer’s Britain being seen as leading in Europe (even outside of the EU) could challenge the nationalist stirrings of a restive press and rightwing Conservative rump. There are two key issues where he could take this leadership role: migration and trade.

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At home, the spectacle of increased migration (after the Leave campaign promised it would be slashed) seems to have at least contributed to Labour retaking many northern “red wall” constituencies in England.

But a sensible, post-Brexit agreement with Europe on asylum and migration has so far been elusive. Instead, we’ve had a series of piecemeal initiatives around cooperation, some of which are yet even to be finalised. This is partly because of Conservative red lines about being seen to be reentering the EU by stealth.

If the Starmer government takes a lead on inking a new agreement, fairly allocating asylum claims across the EU and the UK, it could start to reduce the numbers of those making dangerous channel crossings.

Labour’s majority gives it an ideal opportunity to pursue longer-term gains. The recent surge in support for the far right in European parliamentary and French elections could see the EU shedding its reluctance to engage with the UK, if it helps combat the perception of softness on migration.

Trade and security

Reopening the Brexit withdrawal agreements wholesale would be a huge drain on the government’s time and energy (and unlikely to be embraced by the EU).

Far more prudent would be for the government to slow down the pace of dealignment with EU goods and services regulations. If joining the single market or customs union are even distant prospects, it would be sensible to reduce divergence as much as is practical. Such a split has yet to happen on a significant scale, but climate and environmental regulations is one area where the UK is already notably out of step with the EU.

Given how significant UK-EU trade remains, with 42% of UK exports going to the EU and 51% of imports coming from it, this would benefit all parties, even if rejoining is not a fait accompli.

Digital illustration of two lorries, one with the design of a UK flag and the other with the design of an EU flag, facing each other on opposite cliff edges
Sorting out trade with the EU is an area where Starmer could show leadership.

Security is another real area of shared interest. Labour’s manifesto promises “an ambitious new UK-EU security pact”. Anxious to demonstrate advantages of Brexit, Boris Johnson was wont to emphasise the superiority of Britain’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compared to the EU’s.

In reality, the UK and the EU (Hungary’s Viktor Orbán aside) are similarly worried about Russian incursions westward, not to mention cyberattacks and election interference. The old bogeyman of the proudly independent British army being subsumed by a European force can surely now be shed in the wake of Brexit and the dire need for cooperation.

Like all prime ministers, Starmer faces the balancing act of placating domestic constituencies while finding common ground with allies. Demonstrating leadership in Europe can show engagement while appeasing UK audiences who fear rejoining by stealth. Migration and security are two areas in which the harmony of interests are obvious. Starmer needs to seize the opportunities that having a relatively united party on European issues presents.

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