In a new report for the Compass think tank, Jon Bloomfield explores how post-Brexit Britain can build a better relationship with the EU
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Huge developments are shaking world politics. Global challenges – climate change, COVID, the war in Ukraine – are increasingly demanding collective European responses. In the 21st Century, the fragmentation of Europe would be a gift to big powers across the globe.
For Europe to survive and prosper, it needs the capacity to organise and protect its own interests much more effectively than it has done until now. This changing geo-political reality poses urgent questions around post-Brexit Britain. How the UK relates to its closest neighbours – its main trading partners, its main scientific and research allies and its main tourist and cultural destinations – is central to its future.
The shortcomings of Brexit were cloaked for a while by the disruptions of the pandemic and the desire of the media and politicians to move onto other topics. Yet the Government’s boasts to have ‘got Brexit done’ ring ever more hollow, whether on Northern Ireland, the economy or wider issues of defence and security.
The Government has been trying to tear up its own protocol. This gave Northern Ireland a dual economic status within both the UK and EU, enabling it to stay within the EU Single Market and thereby avoid a hard customs barrier on the Northern Ireland/Irish border. These were the arrangements that the UK Government itself negotiated but have since been seeking to discard.
By ignoring majority Northern Irish business and political opinion and aligning with sections of the Unionist community, the Government is inflaming the most sectarian forces within the province in a manner that can only destabilise the Good Friday Agreement. At the same time, this ongoing duplicitous behaviour undermines the trust of EU member states in the probity of the UK Government.
As business returns towards normality following the pandemic, the damage which the new arrangements are doing to the UK economy becomes more obvious.
Compared to pre-pandemic levels, UK goods exports have fallen by 14% while, globally, exports have risen by an average of 8.2% over the same period. Business investment in the UK has fallen sharply in comparison to France and Germany. New rules and regulations for EU trade are especially hitting small companies and first-time exporters who don’t have the time, knowledge and capacity to deal with the additional paperwork and new, complex arrangements.
This all serves to weaken overall UK economic performance in ways that the Government’s much-trumpeted new trade deals will never come close to compensating.
During 2021, and most of 2022, Brexit got minimal political attention. The Government and pro-Brexit media had little to crow about; the BBC was cowed into silence, along with much of the business community; the inability of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to address the shortcomings of their pre-2019 policies left them dumb-struck.
Within Labour, no one wants to own up to their failings. The former Corbyn leadership faced the dilemma of being an anti-EU team leading a pro-EU party. The key ideological figures, Jeremy Corbyn’s two chief advisors Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray, believed in the need for a clean break from the EU and, above all, its Single Market. They rejected the compromise solutions around a ‘soft’ Brexit. Hence all the convoluted sophistry about supporting ‘a’ single market but not ‘the’ Single Market.
As negotiations stalled, pro-Europeans made the mistake of calling for a re-run of the referendum, thereby giving ‘democratic’ legitimacy to the Brexiters. In autumn 2019, Labour followed the Liberal Democrats into the electoral trap set by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings with predictably disastrous consequences. In response, Labour has shrivelled.
Corbynistas blame Keir Starmer for the second referendum policy and never make any mention of the Lexit leadership’s consistent refusal to promote the Single Market alternative. The Starmer leadership pursues a policy of amnesia, interspersed with occasional comments that dig themselves into an even deeper hole. When Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves was asked if she could see Britain rejoining the EU or Single Market in the next 50 years, she baldly replied: “No, I can’t see those circumstances.”
Labour has now adopted the anaemic soundbite that it will ‘make Brexit work.’ But 2022 revealed that the underlying premises of the Government’s hard Brexit are untenable.
Firstly, ‘Global Britain’ is a chimera. It took just seven weeks for the Liz Truss fiasco to show that Britain can’t ‘go it alone’. Secondly, the permanent damage to major chunks of our economy from being outside the common trading area of our EU neighbours has become crystal clear: it both reduces our capacity for growth and UK tax revenues. Thirdly, Ukraine has demonstrated the irrelevance of the 2021 defence review with its grandiose talk of a Global Britain claiming to revive Britain’s East of Suez role in the Indo-Pacific.
Whatever the Brexiter rhetoric, the UK cannot escape its geography and the recognition that the UK’s security is inextricably linked with the Continent’s.
On Europe, Labour is paralysed by a fear of reopening old debates. Its crude electoralism in not wanting to offend ‘Red Wall’ voters hits up against the failures of the Government’s hard Brexit. This isn’t a question of arguing to re-join the EU. Civil society organisations such as the European Movement will keep that flag flying, but political parties know that, after the 2016 Referendum and the 2019 General Election result, re-joining is not on the political agenda in this decade. But that should not mean being trapped within the Brexiter cage.
Public opinion is already shifting and clearly recognising the failures of Brexit. All progressives can, and should, challenge the untenable premises of a hard Brexit and, in the process, change the terms of the UK’s political debate on Europe. How can this be done?
Firstly, on Northern Ireland, progressives should call for an end to posturing on the Protocol. The UK Government should implement the international treaty that it signed up to and face down the rejectionist stance of Unionist hard-liners who, as the election results confirm, represent a minority within the region.
On the economy Labour should state unequivocally that it has no intention of de-aligning from the regulatory framework of the Single Market. There will be no race to the bottom on industrial, environmental or social standards or the creation of separate UK product standards. This will create the conditions of basic trust where a UK Government can discuss revising the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) so that a new economic partnership with the EU can be explored that would benefit both parties.
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Thirdly, Ukraine has shown the need to add a defence component to TCA. NATO as an alliance for military operations is not a substitute for on-going cooperation on defence, weapons procurement and security issues with the EU. Formal engagement within the TCA would give the UK a solid framework on which to work with the EU on security.
Labour should also engage actively with the European Political Community, a Macron-inspired initiative launched in October, bringing together 44 countries from Iceland to Azerbaijan. Even the Truss Government recognised the need for engagement. Within the EPC, the North Seas Energy Cooperation platform gives the UK a chance to work with eight EU countries, Norway and the European Commission on wind power, hydrogen and energy interconnectors to improve cross-European renewable and energy security capacity.
These ways to change the terms of political trade can be signalled now. The recent speech by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy made some welcome but limited moves in this direction, yet his statement that “reconnecting Britain to Europe will be a top priority of the next Labour Foreign Office” will only ring true if Labour is prepared to modify some of its self-imposed red lines.
The need to anchor the UK within a European framework is all the more important given the penchant for wild, adventurist politics, which is the hallmark of the post-Brexit Conservative Party. A quiescent opposition, cowered by its 2019 election loss, only encourages the Government to play fast and loose on Europe and rouse xenophobic passions more generally.
Progressives cannot avoid tackling the imperial illusions of a section of the electorate but they should be confident that there is an increasing electoral majority that wants the UK to develop close cooperative relations with its European neighbours.
Jon Bloomfield is a writer, European policy specialist, environmental practitioner and author of ‘Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham’. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. Read his report for Compass here
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