Starmer can’t dodge the Europe question for ever. In office, the economy will answer it for him | Martin Kettle


“Who do you think will lead the Labour government’s revolt on Europe?” asked my walking companion, steeped in politics, as we battled a cold morning headwind on a Chiltern hillside this week, the hedgerows around us suddenly in full leaf again and the chalkland remarkably dry after that pitiless early April rain, before he added: “And when will it come?”

These are both good questions. But they are hard to answer in a fierce wind and going uphill. Back in the dry, I have mulled them more carefully. The revolt on which my companion and I speculated would be a revolt to push Keir Starmer to go further on Europe than he says he is willing to go. The answer is that the pivotal factor may not be geopolitical- and security-related, as some may assume amid the increasingly dire conflict with Russia in Ukraine. More probably, it would be the state of the economy over which Labour finds itself presiding as Starmer’s government reaches its midterm point.

At present, Labour is keen to lock a future government’s relations with Europe in the pre-election long-stay car park. Starmer wants the forthcoming contest to be about Conservative economic failure, not about Brexit. Even Labour’s most passionate pro-Europeans have accepted that getting elected must come first. The party’s reluctance to air the European question too loudly before that is understandable. But this does not mean the question is going to go away in government.

One thing can be said with complete confidence. The change in the UK-EU relationship if Labour returns to power will be complicated not simple, evolutionary not explosive, and contextual not doctrinaire. It will not be a stark in-out choice, as it was in 2016. In many ways it would be crazy if it was, in the light of the civic and practical damage that the referendum and its aftermath inflicted on our still wounded country. A second-referendum moment is still at least another decade away, and it quite possibly will never come.

But a changing and closer relationship with Europe is nevertheless a certainty if Labour is elected. The threat from Russia matters here, of course, as do the climate and migration crises. But Britain’s relationship with Europe cannot avoid being a key dynamic of any long-term national renewal project for Britain of the kind that Starmer promised to the Labour conference last year. Repair with Europe cannot be dodged indefinitely, whether in the context of domestic politics, international security or the economy.

Many variables, some highly volatile, will have an impact. Domestic politics cannot be ignored. The election result itself will be crucial, especially if it is close. Likewise if the Conservatives and Reform do better than expected in the pro-Brexit “red wall” seats. A period of electoral unpopularity for Labour – surely a when not an if factor – may foster caution about Europe, too. Any signs of a Conservative revival, especially under a fanatical leave leader or with Nigel Farage brought on board, will do the same. If Donald Trump is in the White House, Labour will be even more between a rock and hard place.

‘Keir Starmer wants the forthcoming contest to be about Conservative economic failure, not about Brexit.’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Europe’s own political context is also a source of volatility. The picture differs from one country to another. A better disposed Britain will not be automatically welcomed by all. June’s European elections in the EU’s 27 member states will give a snapshot of the public mood about the continent’s current trajectory. A big shift towards the nationalist right will dampen Labour ambitions. But the political makeup of the new European Commission that will follow the elections could be more lastingly significant. This commission will be in office until 2029, the entire period of what Starmer hopes will be only his own first term. Whether it will be a partner with which a Labour government can do the useful business that it hopes to do remains to be seen.

This week, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, set out his case for a Labour foreign policy centred on “progressive realism”. He repeated that Brexit is “settled” and that Labour will not seek to rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union. Instead, he advocated what he called a more “formal means of cooperation” with Europe. One reading of this is that Lammy wants to negotiate for Britain to attend meetings of the EU foreign affairs council on a regular basis.

Central to this strategy would be a security pact with the EU. Note that this is not a proposal for a pact with Nato, of which the UK is a founding member. In fact, it would not primarily be a defence pact as such. Instead, in Lammy’s words, the EU pact would embrace “a wide variety of military, economic, climate, health, cyber and energy security issues”. Later, he adds that “there are plenty of pragmatic steps we can take to rebuild trust and cooperation and reduce barriers to trade”. In other words, it is potentially an across-the-board deal on everything short of formal membership.

Lammy’s phrases are capacious. It is not hard to see that they could imply extremely close alignment of rules on some very large issues such as emissions trading, critical raw materials and even migration. All have genuine security dimensions. Potentially, the list could be even longer, extending to things such as data, pharmaceuticals, student mobility, science research and some industrial products and standards.

Once Labour is talking to the EU in detail about issues such as these, and assuming – which may be over-ambitious – that the EU is equally willing to talk in detail with the UK in return, this is a process with a lot of momentum. It will be hard to keep it from bumping up against Britain’s position outside the EU. It is at that point that the questions we posed on a windblown Chiltern hillside would become very real indeed.

The answers to them depend more than anything else on Britain’s economic performance over the next three or so years. Suppose growth has become strong and the forecasts in 2026-27 are even better. In that case, as the 2028-29 general election comes into view, Labour will be more inclined to sit tight, strengthening its agreements with the EU where it can but determined not to contemplate going further.

Yet suppose, on the other hand, that growth is more faltering, that forecasts remain modest and that public-realm renewal and green-energy transformation are still lagging behind. In that case, and especially amid global instability of the kind being faced in 2024, the pressure for smoother links with Britain’s closest and largest trading market will grow louder. If circumstances of that kind apply, then the argument in favour of, for example, putting customs union membership on the agenda will revive. But it will not be led by the diplomats, the military or the scientists or by the ministers who represent their interests. It will be led by economic interest, and thus by the chancellor of the exchequer, Rachel Reeves.

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