With Keir Starmer all but measuring the drapes in No 10, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that his pledge to renegotiate Britain’s treaty with the EU has set Westminster aflutter. The reality, however, is less exciting: Starmer’s promise is little more than the empty virtue-signalling for which he is already notorious. If anything, his call to renominate Britain’s Brexit deal is the Europhile equivalent of taking the knee for Black Lives Matter — something Starmer also did, before promising to hire 13,000 extra police officers and pledging to institutionalise a raft of authoritarian “Respect” orders — “anti-social behaviour orders with teeth”.
With such a record of political opportunism, what are we to make of his promised renegotiation? While Eutopian liberals such as The Guardian’s Rafael Behr are hailing the promised renegotiation as a historical inevitability, smarter commentators such as Wolfgang Münchau have pointed out that, whatever Starmer might want, the EU has little incentive to re-open negotiations. And in any case, it is impossible to secure a better deal for Britain without re-entering the Customs Union and Single Market, both of which Starmer has ruled out.
With this in mind, Münchau considers the possibility that Eutopian liberals might be sufficiently emboldened — and perhaps boosted by diplomatic pressure from Brussels — to manoeuvre a future Starmer government into holding another referendum. This is despite the fact that a campaign to Rejoin the EU would have no more chance of winning than Remain did in 2016.
As sound as this reasoning is, it gives Starmer too much credit. He is no more serious about rejoining the EU than he was about Labour’s Green New Deal or boosting house-building. Both of these were supposedly flagship policies, and yet his party rapidly retreated from them at the slightest hint of contention or opportunity. In the first instance, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves pulled back from her much-vaunted programme of “Securonomics” and a “green prosperity plan” when it was pointed out that it would cost money. Then, more recently, Starmer helped to torpedo the efforts of Levelling Up minister Michael Gove, who was hoping to lift environmental restrictions on house-building.
But if Starmer’s pledge for a new Brexit deal is equally insincere, what is really going on here? In truth, his promises are less about Brussels than they are about managing his own party and manipulating the hopes of voters. There is a huge subsection of the British middle class, many of them supporters of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have never recovered from the trauma of losing the EU referendum. For these people, Brexit has become the default explanation for everything that has gone wrong with the country and in their own lives — from energy costs and food inflation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and long airport queues. Recognising this psychic pain, Starmer is dangling the prospect of an existential salve; he is, in short, virtue-signalling.
However as with most virtue-signalling policies, it will have no effect on the status quo. But the status quo is, in fact, a drift back towards the EU. And this drift, much like other policies associated with the liberal Left — from Net Zero targets to pro-trans social policy — has taken place under Tory rule. It was, after all, the Tories’ support for Nato’s war in Ukraine that has kept Britain entwined in the geopolitics of Brussels. Nothing symbolised this better than Boris Johnson flying to Kyiv rather than attend a party meeting in the Red Wall constituency of Doncaster in June 2022 — the same Red Wall constituencies that are now likely to swing back to Labour at the next general election.
And it was the current Tory Prime Minister who signed off on the Windsor Framework that has helped shore up the Northern Ireland Protocol. By ensuring that Northern Ireland’s economic integration into the Single Market is not compromised, Sunak is again undercutting the prospect of regulatory divergence from the EU. It was also Sunak who, in in October 2022, joined Emmanuel Macron’s so-called European Political Community (EPC) initiative — which is envisaged, in the new Franco-German report on restructuring EU membership, as the outermost tier of EU membership. Starmer’s declaration in Montreal at the weekend that he has no intention of diverging from the EU is not radical; after all, neither do the Tories.
A sovereign British foreign and economic policy in the medium term seems unlikely, then. Nonetheless, there are grounds for optimism for those who cherish national independence. Ultimately, the closer Britain draws to the EU, the more the shimmering mirage of Rejoin will fade, and the more difficult it will be to portray the EU as a cure for all our ills. The truth is that, for Rejoiners, no amount of rejoining will atone for our democratic sins. And even if Britain traversed all the tiers and outer layers of “associate EPC membership” to “full membership”, which would include membership of the Schengen Zone and even the eurozone currency union, the EU the Rejoiners know and love will already be long gone. Indeed, that same Franco-German report sees the future of the bloc as a series of concentric rings with multiple tiers of membership rather than a simple club of member-states.
The hard truth is that the EU of Rejoiners’ imagination disappeared in June 2016. It was an artefact of the era of US unipolarity and high globalisation. The very fact that Britain decided to withdraw was not a historical accident that can be rectified; it was a reverberation of deeper structural shifts in the global order, signalling the beginnings of a retreat from globalisation well before the pandemic and Russia’s invasion. This is Starmer’s Brexit mistake: as the EU dissolves into tiers, the politics of nostalgia will become increasingly impotent.