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Mon, 22 July 2024

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New opportunities: strengthening UK & EU relationships once more Partner content
By Christina Georgaki
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Labour’s EU strategy faces an uphill battle

5 min read

Despite Labour’s silence on Brexit in this election campaign, the party’s European Union policy is in fact quite clear. Whether it is willing to put in the hard yards to make it happen is not as clear.

Assuming it wins the election, the question is not so much what Labour’s EU policy will be, but whether it will succeed. And as our new report at UK in a Changing Europe shows, the party faces an uphill battle in Brussels.

Labour’s EU policy has two twin tracks: one around security, and another around trade.

The security element was elucidated in a recent essay by David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary. He expressed an ambition to "seek a new geopolitical partnership with the EU" centred on an expansive "security pact" involving "closer coordination across a wide variety of military, economic, climate, health, cyber, and energy security issues".

The details remain extremely vague, perhaps deliberately so. Labour appears to be hoping that, by proposing a bespoke deal which tries to reframe a wide range of issues as security, it can engage the EU on economic matters which would normally be reserved for those more deeply integrated into the Union.

Yet the EU is likely to see through this. It has long been sensitive to attempts by non-member states to ‘cherry pick’ their relationship (maximising benefits will minimising obligations). The accession process underway to integrate several new member states only enhances this sensitivity, as third countries like the UK cannot get preferential treatment to candidate countries like Ukraine.

The pandemic and war in Ukraine have pushed the EU towards an increasingly protectionist industrial strategy, prioritising domestic production capacity in sectors ranging from green technology to defence. While this does not rule out all forms of cooperation with the UK, it will not be on the wide-ranging scale Labour has proposed.

A more realistic model for a security pact might be the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC): a semi-regular summit where the two sides coordinate approaches to key issues. The TTC has been seen by insiders as something of a disappointment – producing few tangible commitments – but it could conceivably create a platform for the two sides to agree measures to deepen cooperation (for instance on linking emissions trading schemes or new energy trading agreements).

These agreements would, however, still need to be completed by the book, i.e. formal negotiation and binding treaty, which is never a simple or speedy process. Labour is understandably keen for more high-profile meetings with EU interlocutors, but if it wants to truly deepen the relationship, there is no substitute for the hard graft of negotiation. Whether it is willing to put the necessary effort into the less glamorous side of the relationship – given there will be many competing agendas to focus on – remains to be seen.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy during a visit to Berlin in 2022 (Alamy)

This applies equally to the second track of its EU policy: improving the trading relationship. Membership of the single market and customs union has been ruled out, and Labour will instead focus on technical changes and additions to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, such as deals on veterinary standards, professional qualifications, and mobility of persons.

For the EU to engage with any UK proposals, Labour will have to offer clear incentives. That means not only making demands which are in the UK’s economic interests, but offering things which the EU wants in return, namely a youth mobility scheme and UK membership of Erasmus. Such agreements could expose Labour to Conservative attacks about restoring free movement, paying into EU budgets, and alignment with EU rules. Whether the party is willing to risk such attacks at home may well depend on the size of its majority.

British politicians also acquired a reputation during the Brexit negotiations for a poor grasp of detail and unwillingness to accept trade-offs. Labour cannot arrive in Brussels with good intentions alone, to convince the EU to do business it must also demonstrate a much clearer-eyed grasp of the policy picture. What kind of veterinary agreement does it want? In which areas is it willing to align with the EU rulebook, and how? And on what timeline will the agreement be implemented?

Related to this is the need to build trust, which remains low. Overcoming this requires strong personal bonds between senior politicians on both sides, which is best established through more regular meetings, in more candid settings. Given there is a limited amount of business which the two sides need to formally conduct, Labour will have to think hard about how it creates those opportunities. One of the major benefits of Labour’s putative security pact would be the more regular facetime it would create.

And finally, some things remain outside of Labour’s control. If the Commission senses that the Party could lose the following election (there is good evidence that even a Labour landslide could quickly evaporate), it may be reluctant to invest the time and effort in negotiating new deals.

Though Labour’s ambitions for EU relations may be modest, the obstacles to achieving them are significant.

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