The writer is director and chief executive of Chatham House, a think-tank
Better that Labour’s intentions towards Europe become clear now. Better for voters in the next general election, obviously, but better for the party itself that contradictions in this most important plank of its foreign policy are resolved early.
That was one useful product of this week, which exposed some wishful thinking — but also a new opportunity. Sir Keir Starmer’s visit to France on Tuesday was perfectly timed; the EU is wrestling with its own future in a way that may offer the UK a chance of the closer role that the party he leads would like.
It was a week of subtle but significant shifts, provoking furious debate among those who spend their lives calibrating policy differences. Ahead of his trip, Starmer repeated the party’s careful stance that while a Labour government would not take the UK back into the single market or customs union, it wanted a “much better” relationship with Europe than recent Conservative governments.
Then, while he was in Paris, France and Germany tabled a plan for an “inner circle” of countries ready for radical integration, and an outer tier of membership for “even the UK”. That prompted charges from Brexiters that Labour would take the UK back in but also signalled a possible more flexible relationship short of membership.
Finally, in apparently unguarded comments in Canada, Starmer said a Labour government would not “want to diverge” from EU laws, provoking another round of Brexiter accusations that re-entry was the hidden agenda.
Europe has not been an easy subject for Labour under Starmer. With eyes fixed on the next election, where Labour is 15 to 20 points ahead in the polls, he has not wanted to jeopardise the party’s appeal to Brexit voters. So its leading figures have repeatedly denied any intention to rejoin the EU, including shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, who before holding the post had been a fierce critic of Brexit.
But there are several problems with vowing not to rejoin even the customs union while calling for a closer relationship. It leaves Labour open to the charge of wishful thinking. An expectation has emanated from the Labour team that they could get on the Eurostar (strikes permitting) and be showered with gratitude in Brussels simply for not being the party that brought about Brexit. They would get lots more smiles than the Tories, no doubt — but probably not much more.
British politicians again and again fail to understand the passion that founding members of the EU attach to the indivisibility of the single market. “Cherry picking”, that European pejorative for British negotiating tactics, is a cute-sounding cliché that conceals real anger.
A second problem is that Rishi Sunak is, despite Starmer’s caricature, steadily creating closer relations with Europe. The prime minister has through the Windsor framework removed the worst frictions created by Brexit, and also taken the UK back into Horizon, the scientific co-operation pact. On top of that, leading European countries have no time to reopen substantial Brexit talks. Ukraine, internal EU rows over trade, migration — these have their attention.
So what should Starmer do? Small stuff such as harmonising veterinary checks, as he has suggested; steps to simplify paperwork and ease student travel and studying. But Britain’s firm support of Ukraine has given it a reason to keep talking to Europe about the bigger picture of the whole region’s defence.
Starmer may be offered a way through these tensions by this week’s “multi-tier” musing from France and Germany. The refusal by Poland, Hungary and Slovakia to take grain from Ukraine is one of the greatest recent challenges to the internal workings of the EU. Looking at giving membership to Ukraine and others, the EU is wrestling hard with making the club work. It is possible that it is ready to explore a closer relationship with the UK in a way that it was not before.
Sorting out a more coherent strategy on Europe would help give shape to Labour’s foreign policy. Lammy has fleshed out a solid approach but is handicapped by the contradictions and tactical silences on Europe at the party’s heart.
For traditional reasons, Labour is uneasy with many aspects of wider foreign policy and those ghosts hover over the policy table despite Starmer’s efforts. There are parts of the party that dislike the US instinctively, are uncomfortable with military intervention — and indeed uneasy with criticism of Russia never mind war with it. What Labour likes to talk most about in foreign policy is development aid, and here Lammy has been eloquent.
Acknowledging what it is realistic to ask of Europe and offering support on its own problems is the route to a more coherent policy for Labour on Europe, one that would strengthen its foreign policy overall.