Aug 30, 2023

Sunak, Starmer, and Europe: A Story of Small Steps

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has failed to build on the Windsor Agreement; relations with the rest of Europe are stagnating. His presumptive successor, Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, is unlikely to fundamentally change direction, either.

Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer speaks at an event in London, Britain, February 27, 2023.
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In a year’s time the United Kingdom will be in election fever. At least the political class will be. This assumes that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak does not spring a surprise, as his counterpart Pedro Sánchez in Spain did, and call an early election in May or June 2024.

After the chaos of the immediate post-referendum years of Theresa May, after the party-going COVID-19 mayhem of Boris Johnson and the fleeting madness of Liz Truss, one might think Britons would relish a period of calm. What they have, rather, is torpor—a sense of a country going through the motions at the end of a long Conservative era, with international partners sitting it out, waiting for change.

Fin de siècle stagnation is not new. It happened at the end of the last period of Tory hegemony, a decade of buccaneering Margaret Thatcher sliding into a whole term of Euroskeptic in-fighting against John Major in the 1990s. Yet while there are some similarities between 1997 and 2024, the differences are far greater. With Tony Blair came a smile redolent of naïve optimism. Back then, the coffers of the treasury were full; there was a sense of a Britain on the up, comfortable with its place in the world.

Blair and several aides from that era are now advising the current Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer. With opinion polls giving Labour a consistent margin of around 20 percentage points, preparations for government are intensifying. Sue Gray, the senior official tasked last year with determining whether Johnson had broken his own pandemic laws, is beginning work as Starmer’s chief of staff, much to Conservative fury. Her main task is to ensure that a despondent civil service can deliver Labour’s priorities.

On a “Mission” of Sorts

Which inevitably gives rise to the word: Brexit. What role will Europe play in a Starmer government? In all areas of policy, his approach has resembled that of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. (The two center-left politicians communicate regularly.) The Briton has noted the ingredients of the German’s electoral success: say as little as possible and wait for others to trip up. Give no hostages to fortune. Dispense with anything contentious. In the past few months, Starmer has watered down commitments to climate change mitigation, workers’ rights, and child support.

His five “missions” are so vague they will be virtually impossible to judge. Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country making everyone, not just a few, better off; turn Britain into a clean energy superpower; build a National Health Service fit for the future; make Britain’s streets safe; break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage. Foreign policy is not mentioned, but that is unremarkable. Few elections in any country are won on international affairs.

The Complications of the B-Word

The problem, as many inside the Labour Party privately argue (discipline is so tight now that few publicly dissent), is that Europe cannot be wished away. When forced to mention the B-word, Starmer focuses on performance rather than principle. “Make Brexit Work” is now as much a Labour slogan as it is a Conservative one.

Brexit is a problem to be wished away electorally. Even the most avowedly pro-European Liberal Democrats have come to that conclusion. One party official explained to me that, thanks to the electoral system, if the LibDems talked more about Europe they could significantly increase their share of the vote in safe seats where such extra votes do not matter, while alienating voters in marginal constituencies where the loss of votes does.

This seems unduly pessimistic, but the thinking for both opposition parties is to allow the Tories to continue to implode without giving them ammunition to fight back. For some time, the opinion polls have shown that a majority of UK voters now see Brexit as a mistake. Whether that translates into direct action to reverse any of the original 2016 referendum is the crucial question.

No, No, No

During the formal election campaign itself, all party leaders will be required during the TV debates to clarify their positions. Starmer will reaffirm no re-entry, no return to the single market, and no return to the customs union.

Election secured, attention would soon turn to re-election. The political cycle has a deadening circularity, even where circumstances change. For Starmer, there would be extreme pressure not to renege on his word.

This tendency to look over one’s shoulder is the preserve of the center-left. Conservatives, not just in the UK but beyond, regard terms in power as the green light for forcing through as much as they can as quickly as they can—often riding roughshod over constitutional norms (think Trump, think Boris Johnson and his attempts to circumvent parliament in the final stages of EU withdrawal). Propriety is admirable, but it is only a small part of a wider phenomenon—a form of imposter syndrome among center-left governments.

An Incremental Approach

Having deprived himself of the ability to do anything radical, what might Starmer dare to achieve on the European front? His approach will be incremental, testing the mood—at home and abroad—for each step he takes. EU institutions and member states will greet him with a mix of enthusiasm and wariness. They were initially relieved at the arrival of Sunak and the agreement struck on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but his failure to use the Windsor Framework as a catalyst for a wider rapprochement has led to disappointment.

With the mood of his parliamentary party increasingly sour, Sunak is doing what his predecessors did in times of difficulty and throwing red meat to his core voters. A common tactic is to unleash “attack dogs” to make pronouncements that he would not feel comfortable saying, such as a Deputy Conservative Party Chairman and MP in a former coalmining seat by the name of Lee Anderson who recently declared that illegal migrants should “f*** off back to France.” Unsurprisingly, that did not go down well on the other side of the English Channel.

But it did help divert attention, briefly, from the British government’s continued failures in dealing with “the small boats” and from Sunak’s inability to persuade EU member states to work more cohesively with him. The EU is coordinating efforts within the bloc, but as officials like to point out, you are either in it or outside it.

A decision on re-joining the Horizon science and research scheme has been deferred, again, but is likely to be settled soon. That will remove one important hurdle, but it is only one of many. Sunak has brushed off an opportunity for wider structural dialogue with the EU on security and trade issues, continuing to insist—in the face of evidence to the contrary—that he can deal with other multilateral institutions or individual countries, ignoring the fact that the EU holds regular formal talks with countries such as China, Japan, and Turkey.

Areas such as this will be the starting point for Starmer and a British Foreign Office almost certainly to be led by David Lammy, Labour’s current foreign policy spokesman. Lammy, a more unabashed pro-European, will be keen to secure some early “wins.” These are likely to include technical changes such as a veterinary agreement, removing red tape for musicians and other creative touring groups, and the restoration of mutual recognition for professional qualifications.

The plans are cautious, but in the present atmosphere (frosty if not toxic) perhaps sensible. Re-establish trust among partners who have grown used to being distrustful; secure a steady stream of changes that produce measurable improvements for British consumers, holidaymakers, and businesses—and test the voter response.

Each time the new normal is normalized, look for more normality. Small steps, with the ground prepared laboriously along the way. The Starmer way. And as it happens, the Scholz way.

John Kampfner is a regular contributor to The Guardian and The New European. His new book, In Search of Berlin, is published on October 5.

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