France has been swept up in a mood of cross-Channel rapprochement. As the country hosts the Rugby World Cup, its minister of sport has shown a special solicitude towards English visitors, hoping to atone for the mistreatment of English football supporters at the 2022 Champions League final in Paris. At the England-Argentina match in Marseille, fans demonstrated their gratitude by purchasing 83,000 beers — a record, according to the Financial Times. Days later, Emmanuel Macron followed up by inviting the Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer to Paris. The two will meet at the Elysée palace today.
It should help both of them. Since Montesquieu’s time, French stereotypes have credited British statesmen with wisdom and ruthlessness in the pursuit of economic advantage. Even 49 days of Liz Truss proved inadequate to shake them. Macron would like to lay claim to these Anglo-Saxon virtues as he leads the French through painful reforms to their welfare state. Starmer, meanwhile, gets further validation as Britain’s likely next prime minister: an important statesman will have anointed him.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
At a time when British voters have felt increasing remorse over Brexit, a visit to the most important head of state in the European Union also allows Starmer to remind voters of the importance of “Europe”, and of his own foresight in backing Remain. At a conference in Montreal last weekend, he told an FT interviewer that the deal Boris Johnson struck with Brussels is “far too thin”, promising to renegotiate a closer trade relationship if he becomes prime minister.
But if that is Starmer’s reckoning, it may be a misjudgment. No one would call these halcyon days for the UK economy. But the idea that the country’s business climate is now uniquely bad appears to have been built from inaccurate data, according to revisions released by the Office for National Statistics earlier this month. The economy has been growing, not shrinking. It has returned to pro-Covid levels. Today, the worst-performing economy in the developed world is not the UK but Germany, for decades the motor of EU prosperity.
Germany’s poor showing is instructive. The countries of the EU made it a priority actively to limit and complicate trade with Britain in the wake of Brexit, in order to send the message that good relations with Europe now require EU membership. But the UK is a large economy, and sending that message came at a high price for French fishermen and German car manufacturers. Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and what happened to Britain in the wake of Brexit happened to Germany, as the United States pressed it to substitute more expensive American natural gas for Russian, and to “de-risk” its trade with Chinese industry. That’s the world of “free” trade: there is a price for marching to your own drummer. The UK is not the only country in the West that is operating under these new rules.
Britain has become much more insular in recent years. This does not mean it is complacent. On the contrary, it may be unduly demoralised. Misfortunes that look like glaring Tory policy failures — areas in which Starmer can make hay with almost any policy alternative — look far less bad in an international context. Britons may still be infuriated at Boris Johnson’s Covid misbehaviour. They should know, though, that from abroad, the media-driven investigations look like a hysterical overreaction. That a prime minister’s violating of a lockdown to celebrate a staffer’s birthday would rankle the public is understandable. That it would occasion the fall of a government is bizarre.
The British response to Covid was incompetent — but most people who kept abreast of continental news would have greatly preferred their local incompetence to the kind that prevailed in the EU. While people could stroll in fields and parks in the UK, Spain was a prison house. While British scientists were developing one of the world’s leading vaccines, France’s vaccine program, conferred on the Pasteur Institute, was an embarrassing washout for Macron.
Tory immigration policies look like another Brexit-era broken promise: The Government’s Illegal Migration Act, with its wacky-sounding idea of parking asylum-seekers in Rwanda rather than processing their claims, has wound up stymied in courts. The country is faced with an epidemic of “small boat” arrivals and rising migrant numbers. But Europe is faring worse. An immigration bill that Macron hoped would be the centrepiece of his government programme last spring is still stalled in the Senate.
“Europeanising” this discussion could, therefore, be a trap for Starmer. Yes, the Tories have screwed up. But the very outlandishness of the Rwanda plan sends a signal that someone in the party understands that the old paradigm has ceased to function. Starmer gives no such signals. His plans to staff up and improve claim-processing simply do not reckon with the extent to which Britain is out of room. His promises to “smash” the “criminal gangs” responsible for migration are misdirected. The public is not worried about the criminality of immigration; it is worried about the volume of immigration. The same goes for Starmer’s offer, in the spirit of “burden sharing”, to take some of the migrants now arriving on Italy’s shores. This, at a time when a half-dozen countries that are still in the EU — Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Latvia — say they want no migrants at all.
So while informally launching his election campaign with a visit to Paris appears to provide Starmer with an all-purpose policy stick for flogging the Tories, the experience of Brexit has left him with a difficult ideological hand to play. In the 2017 elections, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, Jeremy Corbyn ran what may have been the most brilliant national campaign since the Second World War. De-emphasising the opposition to Brexit that had come to dominate the Labour Party, the leftist pariah came within a whisker of toppling Theresa May and moving into No. 10. Yet two years later, Corbyn ran at the head of Labour’s worst showing since 1935.
What happened? Observers tend to focus on Dominic Cummings’s brilliance in reconfiguring Tory personnel and imparting Tory ideology, but Labour had something to do with the result, too. Basically, in the two years after Corbyn’s Brexit-neutral campaign, the party revealed itself as obsessed with getting rid of Brexit, by hook or by crook. Starmer himself was an enthusiastic supporter of a second referendum; Labour looked like a party of broken promises.
A lot of French commentary on Starmer has focused on how this ardent Remainer has made Brexit “un concept tabou”. It is not so mystifying. He is attempting to win 2017 results for Labour while running on its 2019 programme. That is why Starmer’s rhetoric on Europe has this stilted, abstract, impersonal sound. “There is no return to freedom of movement,” he has said. “We have left the EU.” Starmer discusses Europe the way Bill Clinton discussed extramarital sex during his scandal-peppered presidency — studiously avoiding discussion of what he has done and what he would do. Sex, or Europe as the case may be, just blows across the landscape in his vicinity, like a weather system.
Former chief European Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told a British audience last winter: “The EU is no longer what you left.” Barnier meant this as a boast. New bonds of mutuality tied the various countries together, above all the massive Next Generation EU borrowing programme. But a person of British sensibilities would probably think this was worse. Thus far, Next Generation EU has disbursed little money. It has mainly been a tool for disciplining refractory countries like Italy and Poland. The EU has other such tools, and it is not shy about using them. The bloc offers even less scope for sovereignty than it did in 2016.
It’s a commonplace among Brexit foes that any return to the EU would take a lot of time. For instance, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, while believing the public has decisively repudiated Brexit, is not optimistic the country could be readmitted before 2036. A more likely Rejoin scenario would involve suddenness and an element of surprise — say, after the arrival in Westminster of an unexpectedly large anti-Brexit majority. But the plan would need to have been drawn out beforehand, and it would need a powerful European interlocutor who could ensure a positive European reception — a French president, say. And yet, as one observes the care with which Starmer is discussing these things on the eve of his first big foray into Europe, one is drawn to a surprising conclusion: Feelings about Brexit have shifted much less in the seven years since the referendum than Starmer’s more zealous supporters wish to think.
Brexit is possibly the most significant uprising in the capitalist West in the last 75 years — the reclaiming of sovereignty from a technocratic system. The people at the top of that system drew great benefits from it; their efforts to obstruct Brexit were not surprising. But the beneficiaries of the new system, whatever it is, are not people of power. They don’t think of themselves as beneficiaries of anything. Today they are grumbling. But once voters begin to focus on the concrete issues surrounding it, as they inevitably do in the course of a national election, politicians will discover that Brexit is still a dangerous issue. It may even still be a winning one.