For well over a year now, Sir Keir Starmer has been pretty clear on his position when it comes to Brexit, repeatedly ruling out any return to the EU if Labour forms the next government.
“We will not be joining the single market,” he said at his Make Brexit Work speech in July last year. “We will not be joining a customs union. We will not return to freedom of movement to create short-term fixes.”
When asked if he’ll reverse Brexit, his answer is clear and to the point.
“It’s a straight no from me,” he told a caller on LBC last year.
His once Remain leaning party has, by and large, gone with it.
Sure, north of the border, it gives the SNP an opportunity to talk about Labour being pro-Brexit in a country where 62% of voters voted to remain, but it cools the jets of some of the Tory attacks in the Red Wall.
In what must be a sign of confidence that he’s now put to bed any questioning of his position, over the weekend, Starmer vowed to seek a “much better” agreement with Brussels.
He said he would look to reopen the trade and co-operation agreement (TCA) brokered with the EU when it comes up for review.
The Labour leader – who is due to meet French president Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday – told the Financial Times the existing deal is “far too thin” and that his government would “attempt to get a much better deal for the UK”.
“I do think we can have a closer trading relationship as well. That’s subject to further discussion.”
Starmer said he owed it to his children to improve the current agreement.
“I’m not going to let them grow up in a world where all I’ve got to say to them about their future is, it’s going to be worse than it might otherwise have been,” he said.
“I’ve got an utter determination to make this work.”
The question is, can he? Can he make this work, can he secure a better deal with Brussels? There’s some scepticism.
When I spoke to Dr Kirsty Hughes, the director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, and one of Scotland’s leading EU experts, she told me the most notable aspect of Starmer’s comment was the fact that he was talking warmly about the EU.
“The TCA review – due in 2026 – is a technical review on how the agreement and its implementation is going.
“It’s not in any way a built-in renegotiation.”
However, 2026 isn’t just the TCA review, there are also related reviews on energy and on fishing. So, says Hughes, “it could provide a moment, if EU-UK relations are good, to push for some more substantive changes”.
“These are, and will remain, fairly restricted,” she added, “both as Starmer is unwilling to look at rejoining the EU single market or its customs union and the EU will be unwilling to allow the UK to cherry-pick parts of the single market.”
Wolfgang Münchau, the director of the Eurointelligence was brutal, describing Starmer’s position as delusional.
He said it was a “political lie” to say that it was possible to stay outside the single market and the customs union and get a better deal.
What is the incentive for the EU not to play hardball? Why would Starmer secure a better deal than Boris Johnson? Just because he’s not a Tory?
When the existing deal comes up for review, there will be a new European Commission. We could have new governments in Germany and the Netherlands.
The administrations in Italy and France are not particularly stable and have their own troubles to contend with.
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And, says Dr Hughes, Starmer may already have gone about this the wrong way.
“Creating a more substantive EU-UK relationship will require a lot of political commitment and goodwill on both sides.
“This won’t be an EU top priority. And it also seems, just like at the start of the Blair government, that Starmer’s team are putting more effort into EU capitals and less into Brussels, which is a mistake.”
Interestingly, and unhelpfully for Starmer, Münchau suggests that bad negotiations could ultimately lead to a second EU referendum, with Labour putting a Brexit vote in their 2028/9 general election manifesto.
That seems unlikely, but then so did the 2016 referendum.
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