Inside Westminster

Revealed: Starmer’s secret EU agenda he’s keeping quiet to avoid upsetting Red Wall voters

Forget election campaign questions about Labour’s ‘secret’ tax rises – the party wants to keep quietest about the extent to which it will forge closer relationships with the European Union, says Andrew Grice

Sunday 26 May 2024 09:59 BST
Keir Starmer has already ruled out rejoining the EU – but in office he would ‘lead from the front in transforming the post-Brexit relationship’
Keir Starmer has already ruled out rejoining the EU – but in office he would ‘lead from the front in transforming the post-Brexit relationship’ (PA)

While 2019 was undoubtedly the Brexit election, 2024 is doomed to be the non-Brexit one.

The Conservatives will make a few ritual claims about exploiting Brexit freedoms. But they won’t want to remind the 60 per cent of voters who now regret it and would rejoin the EU that they are the architects of the UK’s act of economic self-harm. Predictions of a 15 per cent decline in trade and four per cent hit to GDP are on track.

Labour has radical plans to overhaul the EU relationship, but doesn’t want to talk about them for fear of alienating Leave voters, notably in the red wall. (The Liberal Democrats, burned by being the anti-Brexit party in 2019, now merely talk vaguely about rejoining the single market one day).

I previously assumed that if Labour has a secret plan, it would be to raise taxes after finding that “the books are even worse than we thought”. That might still happen – even though Keir Starmer told Times Radio on Friday that “where there are tax rises, we’ve [already] set that out.”

Now I think Labour’s best kept secret is the extent to which it would forge a closer relationship with the EU. To be fair, Rishi Sunak has stabilised it, winning private plaudits from EU officials who hated Boris Johnson. But Starmer would go much further: he rightly judges the UK would not secure enough economic growth to rescue public services without breaking down the barriers with its biggest trading partner.

Although Labour performed well among Leave voters in this month’s local elections, Starmer will reject pleas from his party’s frustrated pro-Europeans to be more open about his intentions during the election campaign. The ever-cautious Starmer will hide behind his defensive shield: no return to the single market, customs union or free movement of people. Yet talking to shadow ministers, it’s clear to me Starmer would lead from the front in transforming the relationship – without technically crossing his red lines.

In a first five-year term, at least; Labour Europhiles hope the customs union or single market might be revisited during a second term. No one is talking about rejoining, even in private. That’s for another generation.

Labour’s vehicle would no longer be the review of Johnson’s threadbare trade deal in 2025-26, as the party originally envisaged. Instead, it wants to extend a proposed UK-EU security pact beyond defence, policing and justice to economic security, to break down trade barriers. This could include cooperation on climate, energy, supply chains, critical raw materials, aligning with EU rules on a sector-by-sector basis and a mobility scheme for 18- to 30-year-olds – even though Starmer rejected the European Commission’s proposal for one.

In an ideal world for Labour, the pact could even extend to migration, boosting Labour’s chances of landing the prize of a deal to return migrants to the EU – the best chance of stopping the boats. “We can’t talk about it now because the Tories then say we would accept 100,000 migrants from the EU,” one shadow cabinet member told me. The domestic reaction to that would still be a factor after the election and might make progress very difficult.

Labour’s hidden agenda goes way beyond its limited stated aims such as a veterinary agreement, mutual recognition of qualifications and enabling musicians to tour EU countries.

Going further would not be straightforward. The EU’s mantra is “rules is rules” – which means no cherry-picking for non-EU members. Starmer would have to offer more than the UK’s defence heft, such as limited jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice in the UK. He would.

The size of Labour’s majority would determine actions on both sides of the Channel. A big one – and senior Labour figures privately hope for 80 – would encourage Starmer to go big, as he could worry a little less about the following election. It would reassure the EU that changes would not be overturned any time soon by a Tory government.

Would the EU play ball? Brexit fatigue extends beyond UK voters and still afflicts Brussels. But I believe it would be superseded by fear of a Trump second coming, which would lead both the UK and EU to remember who their real friends are rather than create imaginary rivalries. A July election gives Starmer time to build the foundations of the new relationship before the US election in November.

If the UK contest had been held in the autumn, Starmer planned to make his big offer to the EU leaders’ summit in December. Now he might be hosting a meeting of the wider European Political Community at Blenheim Palace on 18 July, where it would be discussed in the margins. He already enjoys good relations with Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz (whom he was due to meet in Berlin next month).

It is regrettable that Brexit will hardly feature in the general election campaign. But I can see why: the Tories would love to see Starmer suddenly rediscover his inner pro-European. He is not in the business of handing them ammunition.

On the EU, we will have to wait to see the real Keir Starmer. Pro-Europeans should remember he still has an election to win. The prize will be worth waiting for.

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