Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘Labour Won’t Reverse Brexit But a Starmer Victory Will Lead to an Immediate Reset of Trust and Goodwill with the EU’

While we should not expect too much of an incoming Labour government, we should not forget just how dark the last few years have been, writes Chris Grey

Labour Leader Keir Starmer on the 2024 General Election campaign. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA/Alamy

This column was originally published in the June 2024 print edition of Byline Times

Subscribe now to stay ahead of the curve

Like many, I have vivid memories of Labour’s 1997 election victory. 

I had been up all night and was travelling to work on the train to Leeds the next morning, when I experienced what has now become a cliché about that day: strangers smiling at each other in a collective sense of happiness. It was low-key, restrained, but quite remarkable. Those for whom Thatcherism had been a long, dark nightmare quietly shared a moment of triumph and hope.

In the years that followed, most of that triumph evaporated. Much of the hope proved unrealistic, for all sorts of reasons. But Britain’s place in Europe seemed clearer than ever. 

Tony Blair was the most pro-European Prime Minister since Conservative Edward Heath and even spoke decent French. That had its limits. 

He still tended to talk of the EU in transactional, and sometimes antagonistic, terms – if only to placate the, by then, firmly Eurosceptic press. And Gordon Brown blocked Blair’s desire to join the Euro which, had it happened, might well have made Brexit impossible.

The Politics of Farage and Reform is No Joke of a Matter – The Established Media Must Learn Its Lessons and Start Holding Them to Account

The normalisation of racism and dog-whistles will only get worse if the press continues to treat Farage as an entertaining figure representing the ‘real views’ of the British people – it must stop, writes Byline Times’ Editor

Even so, during this period, the UK was genuinely at the heart of Europe – continuing to push for the deepening of the Single Market and spearheading the expansion eastwards. The main reason why France voted against establishing an EU constitution in its 2005 referendum was because of the belief that the EU had become too dominated by Britain and the Blairite agenda. 

At home, while bemoaned by some, the arrival of so many continental Europeans in the early 2000s contributed to a growing sense of Britain as a cosmopolitan, vibrant, exciting country. Meanwhile, the Eurostar, which had started full daily services in 1995, was making the distinction between Britain and ‘continental Europe’ increasingly redundant.

By 1997, the Conservatives were consumed by the post-Maastricht Treaty madness which had done much to destabilise John Major’s Government. But, by the time they came back to power in 2010, David Cameron had dismissed with ridicule such ‘banging on about Europe’. Taken along with the pro-Europeanism of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government he headed, it seemed that the new ease Labour had brought to Britain’s place in the EU was a settled fact.

Just a few years later, with Britain outside the EU, things are unimaginably different. 

Welcome Improvements

Brexit happened despite the opposition of the Labour Party – although Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership enfeebled that opposition – and it is still opposed by most Labour members and voters. 

Despite this, Keir Starmer’s Labour does not have a policy to rejoin the EU, or even to soften Brexit by rejoining the Single Market or creating a Customs Union with the EU.

Barring some unforeseeable event, there is no prospect of a Labour government changing tack on that, at least not in the next Parliament. Any who hope for it are as deluded as the Conservatives who claim it is Starmer’s ‘secret plan’. 

Post-Brexit Britain: A Rotting, Corrupted State

Chris Grey explores why the UK’s departure from the EU cannot be separated from other challenging political and public developments in Britain today

But, it is equally deluded to suggest that this means there will be no real difference in Britain’s relationship with the EU under a Labour government.

For one thing, there should be an immediate reset of trust and goodwill – something Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has set out as a Labour government’s “number one priority” in foreign policy. 

That will be aided because Labour is not tainted by responsibility for Brexit or by the many disgraceful ways the Conservative Government conducted itself during the negotiations. However, the possibilities will only be maximised if Starmer, unlike Blair, resists the temptation of courting appreciative headlines in the pro-Brexit press.

Such a reset would not be trivial, given the scars Brexit inflicted on UK-EU relations. At the same time, its importance should not be exaggerated. 

The EU is not about to agree to anything that is not in its interests out of some rush of sentimentality or even relief – its relationship with the UK is not high among its priorities. 

Nor will substantive changes happen quickly. If a Labour government wants to improve the terms of our relationship with the EU, it will have to work long and hard and be able to demonstrate that doing so is in both sides’ interests. 

With those caveats, we can expect immediate efforts to create a deep security and defence partnership, something always envisaged during the withdrawal negotiations but not pursued by Boris Johnson. That shows that the EU is open to such a pact and, post-Ukraine, is likely to welcome it. 

One aspect of such an agreement is likely to be more extensive data-sharing than at present, which would have wider implications. The main reason Johnson didn’t pursue a deep agreement is that such data-sharing would entail an oversight role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ). If that ‘red line’ is crossed in relation to security, why not in other areas?

‘Lady Chatterley’s Brexit’

Not accepting or being able to discuss the damage caused by Britain’s exit from the EU leaves the country in a unsustainable position, writes Chris Grey

The same goes for Labour’s intention to have a ‘veterinary agreement’ with the EU, which would do much to avoid border checks on livestock, fresh produce, and flowers. Again, the only form of such agreement the EU would accept would also mean a role for the ECJ. It would also mean the UK shadowing all relevant EU regulations. If such ‘dynamic alignment’ is agreed, then why not do the same in other areas? Likely candidates include chemicals regulation systems and carbon emissions trading systems.

Other possible developments include easing mobility rules for travelling performance artists, joining the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean Convention governing ‘rules of origin’ which determine when goods qualify for tariff-free trade, and agreements on mutual recognition of professional qualifications. 

Outside the economic sphere, it’s possible that a Labour government would create an asylum processing and sharing agreement with the EU, and might seek to rejoin the Erasmus+ student exchange programme. 

We could certainly expect Britain to start playing a much more enthusiastic role in the development of the nascent European Political Community.

Darkness and Light

None of this is ‘there for the taking’ and some parts of it will be very hard to agree with the EU. But all of it, and more, is possible. 

Domestic politics will be easier under a Labour government because a crucial difference between it and the previous administration will be that all the pressure from within the party will be towards a closer relationship with the EU than is its official policy. By contrast, even the few small steps Rishi Sunak’s Government took in that direction were bitterly opposed by many in his party and were always vulnerable to being derailed by them.

So there is an agenda of improvement which would be deliverable domestically, and potentially negotiable with the EU, and it is certainly better than a Conservative government would have sought.

In the least, it would improve regional security at a time of great geopolitical uncertainty. Some of it is technical and sounds boring, but much of what the EU is about is exactly that – and should never have been made into the huge political issue it became.


Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and help to support fearless, independent journalism that breaks stories, shapes the agenda and holds power to account.

We’re not funded by a billionaire oligarch or an offshore hedge-fund. We rely on our readers to fund our journalism. If you like what we do, please subscribe.

If enacted, it would genuinely benefit some economic sectors, although it would not make a decisive difference in terms of delivering the growth which is central to Labour’s mission. 

It is almost 30 years since the ‘new dawn’ of Labour’s 1997 victory. With that hindsight, it seems to me that, while the triumph of that day was real, the hope was naïve. 

Now, once again, there is a sense of a dark period coming to an end. While we should not expect too much of an incoming Labour government, we should not quickly forget how dark the last few years have been. 

A Labour government will not provide a reversal of Brexit. But we can hope that the 2024 General Election marks the beginning of a long and uncertain road back from the worst consequences it has had on our country.

Chris Grey is Emeritus Professor of Business and Management Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. He writes the Brexit & Beyond blog and is the author of Brexit Unfolded

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , , , , ,