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Is Brexit safe under Keir Starmer?

Starmer will be drawn to the single market to shore up Labour’s economic powerlessness. Credit: Getty

July 7, 2024 - 4:05pm

Britain’s new prime minister has been unequivocal about Brexit. According to Keir Starmer, Britain will not be rejoining the European Union or joining the single market — at least not in his lifetime — a point that was echoed today by the new foreign secretary, David Lammy. This is despite the fact that it was Starmer who, as Brexit Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, pushed Labour into supporting a second referendum on membership of the EU, leading to the party’s electoral crash in 2019.

Despite this dubious record, what Starmer now says is plausible. We can be confident that our governing classes will swerve referendums on constitutional matters in future, and that they will not risk anything so clear as rejoining the EU, which would open them up to accusations of “Brexit betrayal”.

The more likely option for Starmer is a slow, phased realignment with the EU, avoiding regulatory divergence so that rejoining the single market — perhaps under a second Labour government after 2029 — could be cast as an afterthought rather than a decisive about-turn. Such a policy has the added benefit of simply continuing the status quo. Realignment has been the policy of Sunak’s government, both with its concessions to the EU in negotiations in establishing the Windsor Protocol, and in having joined what is now effectively the outermost layer of EU membership, the European Political Community.

The problem for Starmer’s preferred option is that the EU looks very different to how it did when the Labour leader campaigned for a second referendum back in 2019. Since then, the Right has been making huge inroads, with France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni in the ascendancy. What’s more, the radical Right is in power in the Netherlands, Czechia, Croatia, Hungary, Finland and Slovakia, and knocking on the doors in Austria, Germany, Estonia and Latvia.

“Remain and Reform” was the option touted by British liberals and the Left back in 2019, demanding that Britain return to the EU to restructure it away from capitalism. Since then, Remain and Reform has become the strategy of the populist Right, who have abandoned talk of secession in favour of openly discussing how to take over the EU and increasingly coordinate across borders.

Having beaten a Right-wing government and won an enormous parliamentary majority himself, it will be difficult for Starmer to justify aligning with a Union whose member states are increasingly dominated by Right-wing populists. In Britain, the EU was always seen by its supporters as the enlightened liberal restraint on the primitive British working classes, with their parochial island mentality and supposed nostalgia for the empire. It will be harder to make this case if Starmer and his ministers are seen to be negotiating with the likes of Le Pen and Meloni.

Admittedly, such a scenario is unlikely to trouble Labour’s middle-class base. They are both tolerant of Starmer’s hypocrisy and — like the English middle classes across the ages — mostly oblivious to continental politics. Nonetheless, his opponents in Parliament and the press will not hesitate to draw attention to the sight of a Labour leader with such a large majority kowtowing to populist parties.

With such a slender popular mandate, Starmer will be irresistibly drawn to the single market to shore up Labour’s economic powerlessness, while at the same time being no less repelled by Right-wing governments across the continent. This international vice might tighten further if Donald Trump wins the US presidential election in November. The upshot of all this is that Starmer’s room for manoeuvre on the international stage will be severely limited, meaning there will be less scope to evade democratic accountability to the electorate at home. In this, the Brexit that Starmer struggled so mightily to evade is still delivering its benefits.


Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.

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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
13 days ago

Excellent article, hitting all the salient points as we emerge from the election weekend, with the killer lines to conclude with:

“…there will be less scope to evade democratic accountability to the electorate at home. In this, the Brexit that Starmer struggled so mightily to evade is still delivering its benefits.”

This is precisely why i voted for Brexit, and the blob tried to wriggle free of the referendum result.
From that perspective, i can view any attempts to re-align with the single market with equanimity. It was vital this didn’t happen during the Brexit negotiations, or we’d have remained tied to all sorts of political strictures in order to do so – the so-called “soft Brexit”.
Now – as with Sunak’s initial foray into that fray with the Windsor agreement – we’re in a much stronger position to negotiate, and i daresay the EU will be only too happy to provide for reasonable terms.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
13 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Excellent comment, though if I may be so bold I’d substitute the word ‘happy’ with the word ‘desperate’

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
13 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Sorry, I just laughed out loud at your final sentence. The EU is never reasonable and you are not in a stronger position. The Labour government are frothing at the collective gusset to leap back into bed with the EU but has to do it in a way which doesn’t disturb the electorate too much or trigger the Brexit vitriol again. That means shouting loudly about NOT REJOINING THE EU, THE SINGLE MARKET OR CUSTOMS UNION IN MY LIFETIME, NO SIR…but then sneaking in serious sacrifices of sovereignty in below that level that most voters won’t have a clue about and will let pass by unrenarked upon.
Watch for the reintroduction of jurisdiction for the ECJ and dynamic alignment obligations in any agreements struck with the EU.
[I’ve written “renarked” rather than “remarked” but I’m leaving the typo because I quite like the new word I just created involuntarily]

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
13 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I noticed your “renarked” and too thought it was quite appropriate!
I hear what you’re saying, but if the rightward drift really does take hold and results in changes at the top of the European Commission (i appreciate it’d take a while for that to happen) then it’s a whole new ball game. I think that’s also what the author is hinting at; all hypothetical of course.

Robbie K
Robbie K
13 days ago

Considering he is devoid of ideology it seems sincerely doubtful that Starmer actually wanted a second referendum, I suspect he took that approach just to be bloody awkward in opposition.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
13 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Your comment is evidence of just how successful Starmer has been in persuading us that he is ‘devoid of ideology’. We all seem to have forgotten that this is the man who when asked to choose between Westminster and Davos, was emphatic and unequivocal in replying ‘Davos’. He is an unapologetic anti-democrat elitist.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
13 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

He is quite likely the most ideological PM we have had in decades.

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

He is ideologically opposed to having an ideology.

J Boyd
J Boyd
13 days ago

One of the most startling things about political debate and media coverage over the last 5 years is the way the various crises and fiascos that Europe has experienced have been studiously ignored.
It’s almost as if a Leftish and Remainer-inclined Elite has wanted to pretend that Brexit was a mistake and that the UK’s problems are all the fault of Boris and the Tories.
But they couldn’t be so dishonest and self-deluding, could they?

j watson
j watson
13 days ago
Reply to  J Boyd

Pretend it was a mistake? No need to pretend. It was a mistake. Utter shambles. The public were conned.
But Starmer is right too. We won’t be going in anytime soon

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Brexit may have been a “mistake” in purely financial terms, but the EU long ago stopped having any real vision beyond “Bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake”. Can you point to any senior EU official who is anything other than a talentless time-server?

Utter
Utter
11 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Nothing is ‘purely financial’ – it all relates to wealth, happiness, ability to build roads, schools etc. Then is co-operation on trade, education, immigration….etc etc, and brexit has done what for us, really? I don’t care if the cost is a few MEPs, and sharing a bit of the wealth with our neighbours – further, there is a ton more paperwork & bureaucracy now as we renegotiate the terms with other countries – as a weaker single nation than as a powerful trading block. All reminds me of ‘what did the Romans ever do for us…’ sketch.

Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
11 days ago
Reply to  Utter

Should we not be honest and except that the European Union was only ever about Germany and France the U.K.never seemed to have any real influence which is why we chose to leave(or at least one of the reasons)

Utter
Utter
9 days ago

That doesn’t sound honest at all – some truth, sure but overall a polemical position. From all I’ve read, we did have a good deal of influence – but, yes, Germany and France were dominant. We’ve traded that influence for none. Moreover, a reliable, broad majority agree that EU membership is a net assest economically, co-operatively (science, trade, military, policing, immigration, pollution standards etc), – Brexit is widely seen as not successful (for the UK or EU), and euroscepticism within the EU has delcined since Brexit. Most of the dreaded elites predicted that Brexit would not deliver on it’s promises, for explanations that were grounded in facts not fantasy – sure, many|Remain activists greatly hyped the ‘disaster’, just as many leavers grosly hyped the advantages.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago
Reply to  J Boyd

Ignored by whom? It’s all too easy to conspiratorially blame the “Elite” (the capitalisation of the ‘E’ is wonderful, incidentally) and pretend that that gives you a free pass to avoid provide any actual evidence.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
13 days ago

there will be less scope to evade democratic accountability to the electorate at home
Don’t worry, they’ll find a way, just as their New Labour predecessors did. By 2029 another vast swathe of government will have been delegated to NGOs operating out of sight of the electorate.

j watson
j watson
13 days ago

Much written about the drift Right in Europe, forgetting what’s happened in Poland, Greece and Spain. What seems to happen is the ‘further’ Right only gets so far with rhetoric and once in power struggles, then looses or tacks back to a more centrist position – Meloni. Le Pen, if she wins, will do the same. These countries have similar fiscal problems to the UK and they have to be v careful too. This anchors them.
Starmer will therefore find much more commonality than simple foolish tribalism might suggest. Single Market may be step too far for now, but Customs union alignment much more likely. Something for the young too when the time is right.
Brexiteers had their chance. made an utter hash of it, although that was pre-ordained. Folks know that now, just don’t want it pointed out too much.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
13 days ago
Reply to  j watson

People aren’t voting for far right parties, they are voting against radical leftist regimes. If the parties that replace these radical left regimes – whether they are far right, centre right or centre left – fail to implement reforms, they too will be punished.

j watson
j watson
13 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Not sure there have been radical leftists in power or even close to power JV. Depends a bit on defintion.

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I recall the Greek government of some years ago being quite Left Wing. The one with Varoufakis in it.

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I would say it was Remainers that made a hash of things. They could have worked towards a “softer” Brexit, but they kept babbling on about a “Second Vote”.

j watson
j watson
13 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Yes I would concur something in that, but incorrect to suggest the ardent Brexiteers would have settled for that too.

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Maybe they wouldn’t, but the “Second Vote” Remainers made life very easy for the ardent Brexiteers.

j watson
j watson
13 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Yes tactically it allowed the ardent Brexiteers to paint the 2nd vote lobby as undemocratic. In fact of course it was about being ‘more democratic’ and ensuring public supported the negotiated settlement. At the time I think Leavers would have won again anyway.
But for some of us landing a soft Brexit where this should have gone. The two sides conspired to ensure that opportunity was lost. Suspect we’ll creep back to that version now over time and then settle more on it.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
13 days ago

The author is right about one thing – Starmer will soon see himself isolated among international leaders. While western democracies are shifting away from the radical left, Britain will be one of the few nations with a leftist leader.

We really need to shift the way the populist movement is being framed. People are not embracing far right parties. They are rejecting the radical authoritarian leftist regimes that are destroying the privileged way of life we now enjoy.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
13 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Two things:
I’m not at all concerned about the UK being led by a left of centre government whilst Europe drifts in the opposite direction. We’ve always been a bit contrary in these islands; it’s almost our default position!
And… our way of life isn’t “privileged”. We’ve worked for it; toiled, sweated and fought for it. The blood of our forebears, over two thousand years and more, has been shed to allow the freedoms still available to us. We’ve earned it, which is the opposite of “privilege”. All too easily torn away of course, by fools who know not what they do.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
13 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

You won the lottery bigtime being born in Britain, as I did being born in Canada. Of course our forefathers worked hard and toiled to make it happen. Our failure to recognize how privileged we are has given birth to luxury beliefs like net zero and open borders. The Starmer govt won’t be foolish enough to outwardly support open borders, but it is committed to net zero and will erode Britain’s wealth with each windmill it builds.

Bold prediction. In thee years time Starmer will find himself in the same position as German leader Olaf Scholz today, despised and reviled by the people who elected him to punish Angela Merkel.

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago

I am not sure that Starmer, fresh from a big win, will want his entire term to be fought in the “Brexit Betrayer” field of battle, particularly given the large vote share obtained by Reform. He should leave Brexit alone, and concentrate on doing some things where he can have a win.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago

“what is now effectively the outermost layer of EU membership, the European Political Community.”
That is a *very* liberal interpretation of the EPC; that “effectively” is doing a lot of heavy lifting.