Sir Keir Starmer just called the Conservative government’s Brexit deal a “fatberg” of red tape, a wet wipe island, clogging up Britain’s trade. He says Brexit hasn’t delivered the prosperity promised six years ago; worse, sterling, the economy and our prospects are plummeting.
MPs and others state openly that Brexit has not worked and, more importantly, cannot work in its present form. Change is vital. But ‘change’ is not the same thing as saying the UK must re-join the EU now.
On the face of it, re-joining would quickly improve the UK’s economic outlook. It would end the misery of the government’s post-Brexit bureaucratic controls and stop its casual breaking of international law. So why doesn’t the Labour party say as much?
What does Starmer’s latest speech tell us about Labour’s vision for the UK’s relationship with the EU?
Labour’s Brexit strategy: no talk of re-joining the EU
Labour’s first priority is to restore international trust in the UK. Adhering to the rule of law on the Northern Ireland protocol is therefore the critical first test of whether or not the UK can be trusted. Starmer has rightly acknowledged that the withdrawal agreement contains provisions for dealing with problems cooperatively with EU partners; a system of committees was set up to do precisely that. In practice this means compromising on EU proposals for lighter border checks and a new veterinary agreement on agricultural products to and from the EU.
The key point is that you do not need to be in the EU, or inside a customs unions or in the single market, to remove many of the obstacles to letting businesses trade more easily with each other. New Zealand’s recently signed free trade agreement with the EU proves that.
But you do need to be in both to allow ordinary people to enjoy the benefits that people living in EU states do. When the UK joined the EU in 1973, the UK regions and areas of industrial decline benefited immediately from EU regional and social projects which were, and remain, far more generous than anything the government has introduced since then.
And most of us have grown up in the EU. We all benefited from higher standards for food, products and the environment, and the right to live and work anywhere in the EU with the entitlement to social welfare and healthcare on the same basis as locals. We helped develop all that over 40 years and are only now experiencing how expensive and limited hard Brexit makes our lives.
So the puzzle is, why has Keir Starmer ruled out re-joining the EU if Labour gets elected at the next general election?
Is Starmer just electioneering?
It is easy to assume that his views are designed to deflect the government’s intention to fight a general election on Brexit. The government claims to have got Brexit done. It has, after a fashion. But in the process it has weakened the UK economically and its international reputation as a relatively trustworthy state.
Starmer knows that Brexit has become a word embodying the angry despair of those who’ve suffered ever deeper deprivation and austerity over the past 12 years of this government. But we miss the point of his speech if we just focus on red wall soundbites instead of Brexit realities.
We see the consequences of Brexit in the labour shortages all around us, with the tangible impact on the NHS, farm workers, airport security, baggage control queues and wilting ‘fresh’ food on supermarket shelves. All are aggravated by Covid too, but these problems are nowhere near as bad in EU states as they are in the UK.
Re-joining the EU now would certainly alleviate our problems and mitigate the economic decline in some respects, especially if EU workers wanted to return – which is unknown. And re-joining now would benefit freedom of movement for us all.
But we can’t just click our fingers and expect to be let in having undermined international trust in our integrity. The government chooses to make things worse, even threatening a trade war with the EU; and pretending that if we ditch human rights and come up with a ‘British’ version, things will be better. They won’t, because no one will trust a government that breaches agreements it expects everyone else to uphold.
Implicit in Starmer’s speech is a truism: we have no real options in the short term other than to repair relations and prove that we can work constructively and cooperatively with our EU partners.
Is this a cop-out?
Starmer’s position on Brexit has been criticised as a cop-out doomed to fail IF it splits voters willing to vote to get the Conservatives out of office. But Starmer’s message is more subtle, and ironically more responsive to a country that’s been divided by a government inflicting the most economically punitive Brexit possible on us.
Starmer’s speech confirms that another Brexit is needed urgently (and not just for Northern Ireland). He is correct – a different Brexit is possible without the delays involved in negotiating entry to a customs union and to the single market. A Starmer Brexit offers the chance to steady the UK economy by re-establishing good, pragmatic working relations for business and government with the EU, and domestically.
But that is not enough. There is serious intent behind this. Starmer portrays Labour as a responsible government in waiting, with plans to bring people together and involve and empower young people with a vote at 16 to shape the future. He wants us, together, to repair the destructive divisions in our society exacerbated by a failing economy and an antiquated political system out of touch with what the people need and want.
Our electoral system is built on division – pitting ‘them’ against ‘us’. The Conservative Party’s harsh Brexit mirrors that. Starmer’s Brexit is the opposite – a future based on constructive cooperation, domestically and with the EU. That image alone undermines the hard Brexit Tory election game-plan. It offers something to strive for, something feasible if we choose to go for it. Do we need to give that a chance?