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Tory Backed Report Says Closer Ties With The EU Will Help Boost Growth

A new report backed by Tory MP Stephen Hammond calls for closer UK alignment with the EU. (Alamy)

4 min read

Senior Conservative figures have called on the Government to soften the post-Brexit relationship with the European Union, arguing that pushing for closer ties with the UK's most important trading partner is "not some assault on sovereignty".

Former minister Stephen Hammond and ex-Tory MP David Lidington, who served as de facto deputy to former prime minister Theresa May, say in a report published on Wednesday that the Conservatives and Labour should seek to dismantle post-Brexit barriers between the UK and the EU, arguing that it will help boost the economy and enjoy public backing.

The pair believe the mood between London and Brussels has improved significantly since the acrimony of the Brexit years, and that the UK should look to take advantage of the warmer relations by pushing for a number of friction-easing agreements.

Hammond told PoliticsHome securing even just some of the suggestions set out in their report, based on interviews with over 40 companies, would represent "another stepping stone towards more normal relations after a very messy divorce".

“The mood on both sides has changed quite dramatically," said the MP for Wimbledon.

"There has been a rebuilding of trust and now there’s more willingness to talk about ideas.”

Lidington, who was Europe minister for six years while in the House of Commons, said the UK ought to be more "clear sighted" about the importance of the EU relationship to the national interest, telling PoliticsHome that reducing friction will help boost economic growth.

“It is not a panacea," argued the former Cabinet minister.

"Low growth, low productivity and low competitiveness in this country go back decades, and span many different governments.

"But the removal of ted tape, friction and the cost of form filling will make it easier for British firms to make profit and to employee people, and will make the UK an even more attractive place for investors.”

It has been nearly eight years since the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and just over four years since the country formally left the bloc. 

There were moments of high tension between the two sides in subsequent years, particularly over former prime minister Boris Johnson's approach to the thorny issue of post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

More recently, however, the atmosphere between London and Brussels has improved significantly, thanks in large part to the signing of Rishi Sunak's Windsor Framework for Northern Ireland early last year.

The prospect of Labour leader Keir Starmer becoming Prime Minister later this year is also seen as a potential opportunity for UK-EU relations to become more cordial. 

Launching their report, Hammond and Lidington stress that the UK should be realistic about what it can achieve in negotiations with the EU, even if relations are in a better place.

They argue that while the post-Brexit trade agreement created an array of new costs and red tape, senior figures in Brussels are broadly happy with how the deal is working for member states and do not have a major appetite for a major re-working of the deal.

But they believe that a UK Government, led by the Tories or Labour, could take steps like striking a new veterinary agreement with the EU to help reduce checks at the border, and securing what they describe as a cultural touring agreement to eliminate barriers facing musicians and other members of the creative sector to performing on the continent.

The Tory pair also call for closer security and defence ties, and for the UK Government and Brussels to commit to annual summits where the Prime Minister and other Cabinet ministers would meet with their counterparts in the European Commission. 

Labour peer Stewart Wood, who was a Downing Street Europe adviser to former prime minister Gordon Brown, this morning argued that if elected to Downing Street, Starmer should take EU policy out of the Foreign Office because it is bigger and all-encompassing than simply a foreign policy issue.

“Britain’s engagement with the EU is not a foreign policy issue,” he told PoliticsHome.

“It is a really complicated cluster of domestic policies containing a range of technical, industrial and economic issues. It should be located in a part of the government that has a capacity for that.

“One of the capacity gaps in the Government at the moment is monitoring what the EU is actually doing in terms of legislative, regulatory, directive outputs. The Foreign Office isn’t able to do that properly.”

Wood said that while the department is far from the perfect option, the Cabinet Office would be a more appropriate place for a European Secretariat to be located, as it would help a new government pursue more effective engagement with Brussels. 

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