What does Labour say on Europe now?

Denis MacShane inquires as Sunak steals Starmer’s Brexit policy

When the House of Commons told Boris Johnson to drop dead and agreed overwhelmingly to approve the Windsor Framework which the former prime minister, as well as other Europobes like Liz Truss and the DUP, said should be rejected, it was clear that this was a turning point in the long saga of Brexit.

Many newspaper commentators rhapsodised that Brexit was now “done”. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The EU has gently but firmly coaxed, nudged, pressured London into honouring its word – namely, that to avoid the return of a physical border on the island of Ireland, EU rules should apply to the six British counties of Ulster.

The DUP, whose MPs have described the Good Friday Agreement as a “capitulation”, rose in fury and were supported by Tory MPs who love today, as in times past, to play the ‘orange card’ and stop or slow any move in the province that does not conform to age-old prejudices.

Rishi Sunak called their bluff, but the Commons voting to restore the status quo ante does not mean Brexit is done, let alone dusted. The Prime Minister is insisting on pushing through nearly 5,000 new laws to remove any reference to Europe from the UK statute book. It is a golden chance to make Britain a more reactionary nation and removes protections that environmentalists, trade unions, farmers, many professions and charities fought to see become part of the rule book of Europe and the UK when we were in the EU. 

The Windsor Framework does not help a single exporter in England, Scotland or Wales. However, conforming to Baden Powell’s adage “softly, softly, catchee monkey”, Sunak has dropped the abrasive language and tone against Europe of his two predecessors in Downing Street.

All this presents a problem for Labour, as Sunak no longer sounds as barking as Boris or as tetchy as Truss when discussing Europe or its leaders like Emmanuel Macron and  Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission.

Labour has difficulty in finding words to say anything negative about Brexit, even as Richard Hughes, chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility, says the UK is experiencing the “biggest squeeze on living standards we’ve faced in this country on record”. He also said Brexit meant a 4% drop in GDP – about £88bn or £1,333 for every man, woman and child in the UK.

The UK is the only G7 country whose economy is still smaller than it was pre-pandemic, with trade between the UK and the EU now a fifth lower than it would have been without Brexit. Overall, the Tories’ hard Brexit has shrunk, with the average household facing £870 more in costs as a consequence. The public recognise that damage that has been done – just one in ten could name a specific benefit of Britain’s exit from the EU in a recent poll, and only one in 20 could name a way they had benefited personally from it.

Brexit, rather like the Irish question in Parliament in the 19th and early 20th century, will continue to dominate UK economics and politics for some years to come. Labour so far has preferred to avoid the Brexit issue, and no shadow cabinet member has criticised the damage the hard Tory Brexit is doing to Britain. Instead, in a keynote speech at the Irish embassy a year ago (June 2022), Sir Keir Starmer made clear his line: “Under Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.” Instead, he said Labour “would sort out the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

Rishi Sunak has already taken Sir Keir at his word and sorted out the Northern Ireland Protocol blockage created by Boris Johnson.

As a bonus, the former PM was humiliated in the Commons when only 21 of the 365 Tory MPs elected under his leadership in 2019 joined him in the lobby to vote against the so-called Windsor Framework deal. All other MPs, including Labour MPs, faced down the DUP and the Tory ERG anti-Europeans to support Sunak’s solution on Northern Ireland.

Sir Keir last summer also pledged to “share data, intelligence and best practice”, and that’s “why we will set up joint intelligence working here and in Europe”. However, immediately following the Commons approval of the Windsor Framework, Rishi Sunak’s team were out briefing that now the UK could start to be an effective security and defence partner, in the first instance with France and then with other European countries.

Benjamin Disraeli said of the Conservative prime minister Robert Peel, who invented the Conservative Party in place of the Tory Party to see off the threat of the rising tide of reformist liberal politics in the 1830s, that he “caught the Whigs bathing and walked off with their clothes”.

Can the same be said about Rishi Sunak? He has adopted Labour’s Brexit lines on the Northern Ireland Protocol. He is also adopting Starmer’s lines on a return to Horizon, warmer relations with European nations (especially France), and a search for defence and security collaboration with EU member states. But all of this, without relaxing the rigid position the prime minister shares with Labour’s official line: that the kind of relationship with the EU that, say, Switzerland or Norway – neither EU members – have is utterly excluded?

These are the problems that the Labour Movement for Europe (LME) are mulling. The LME has been reinvigorated under Stella Creasy’s leadership and is now the fastest growing outfit officially affiliated to Labour. Fully one third of the women and men selected so far as Labour candidates for the general election in 2024 are LME members and were nominated by the LME in the growing number of constituencies where the LME is affiliated.

They are not challenging the tactical decision of the party leadership to avoid the “rejoin” word, even if every single opinion poll in the last 12 months shows a clear, growing majority that voters now consider Brexit was a mistake. These pro-European future Labour MPs will expect some new thinking as Rishi Sunak implements many of the key ambitions of Labour’s “no rejoin” EU policy.

In a submission to Labour’s National Policy Forum, the Labour Movement of Europe makes several suggestions so that while not seeking readmission as a full EU member, a Labour government could make progress that strengthens the national interest. Each is a standalone realignment based on core national interests and where there is clear evidence that the Boris Johnson ultra-hard Brexit is not working and cannot be made to work.

  • Red Tape. Under Sunak, exporters are forced to follow two different standards regimes if they want to sell in Europe and the UK. Where faced with a choice between aligning with European regulations or those of other blocs, Labour could commit that European regulations would be the default to give businesses confidence they can invest in the UK.
  • Visas for work and travel. From fruit pickers and the fishing industry to scientists, artists and doctors, the freedom to work is not only essential for the UK economy, it also allows our citizens to work around the world. To help ensure all can access these opportunities – especially those in our creative industries and service sectors – Labour could commit to negotiating a new visa and passport system and secure a visa waiver programme which could ensure greater mobility for our citizens and protect their future job opportunities.  
  • Professional standards/qualifications. A mutual recognition agreement and alignment on professional standards is essential for British workers in the modern age. 
  • Financial services equivalency. The UK’s financial services market cannot thrive if it is cut off from its neighbourhood. Labour could ensure London has a level playing field with other European financial centres by negotiating a free trade and equivalency deal on which traders and businesses can rely. 
  • Reinstating Erasmus. Leaving Erasmus has not only denied students from the UK and Europe the academic advantages the programme allows, it has also affected nationwide EU undergraduate enrolment, which has more than halved. 
  • Bespoke customs union. In 2021, new Export Health Certificate (EHC) requirements for exports to the EU cost businesses an estimated £60m in paperwork alone, with more than 288,000 EHC applications requiring the equivalent of 580,000 certifier hours. Labour could support the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean (PEM) Convention and negotiate a bespoke customs union.
  • Veterinary standards. With the number of EU vets registering to work in the UK dropping by more than two thirds, a phytosanitary and veterinary agreement with the EU could alleviate this challenge. 
  • Fishing. Labour could back British fishing by seeking an upgraded fisheries agreement on quota and shared stocks. This could include a common policy on the six to 12-mile area of coastal waters, banning foreign-owned supertrawlers fishing in Britain’s marine protected areas and redistributing fishing quotas from foreign-owned multinationals to favour small boats. 
  • Steel. The UK’s ability to produce steel is critical for our national resilience and economic growth. By working with EU partners to align in efforts to protect against dumping and support decarbonisation through carbon border adjustment mechanisms, Labour could ensure the EU remains the largest and most accessible market for UK steel. 
  • To once again be a beacon for human rights, Labour could begin reconstituting the Dublin agreements to provide for family reunion, managing asylum claims collectively in Europe to deter the small boats crossing the Channel and taking action against the smugglers, as well as to ensure safe routes for those at risk. 
  • Labour should reaffirm the UK Commitment to the European Court of Human Rights set up by Winston Churchill in his final premiership after 1951. 
  • Common defence policy. Britain’s defence capabilities are already deeply embedded with our European partners through NATO and greater alignment with PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation agreement on defence between EU member states.

This is serious thinking by Labour on Europe which can only become more important as Brexit does deeper damage to Britain.

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