Britain and Europe: Turning Around

Keir Starmer promises to do no more than tinker with Britain’s EU relationship during his ‘first’ term of government. By accepting the EU’s regulations on food safety and animal welfare, Labour will ease the worst problems facing Northern Irish trade. But Starmer’s stated intention of “making Brexit work” is no different in principle to that of Rishi Sunak’s. That leaves the field wide open for the Liberal Democrats.

Many Lib Dems would like the UK to rejoin the European Union as soon as possible. That will not happen. Leaving aside the necessity of surmounting a divisive referendum campaign, unless the UK accepts the goal of political, economic and monetary union it is not eligible for full EU membership. There is really no appetite in Brussels to make a special case for the UK as a prodigal member state. On the contrary: once bitten, twice shy. In any case, EU enlargement is stalled and will remain stalled unless and until its constitutional treaties are revised in a federal direction.

So what should the Lib Dems do to turn around British European policy? A motion tabled for the spring conference by Edward Lucas, PPC for the Cities of London and Westminster, sets out answers. The UK, it says, should invite the EU to replace the Tory Brexit deal with a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement whose aim will be to boost the mutual flow and exchange of goods, capital, services and workers. In the first place, a fresh customs union is needed not only to ease the passage of goods across the Channel in both directions but also to relieve the UK of the spurious task of trying to improve on the EU’s existing trade treaties.

Business recovery will only be assured, however, once Britain respects the regulatory regime of its largest and closest trading partner. Such dynamic alignment will allow the UK to re-engage with the EU’s relevant authorities, such as the European Environmental Agency and the European Medicines Agency, as well as to participate again in EU R&D programmes, notably Horizon and Galileo. The UK would be a willing partner in exchanging data and in pan-European efforts to fight international crime and administer decent justice. Systemic collaboration in the fields of foreign, security and defence policies would quickly follow on, aimed at bridging the divide between the EU and NATO, and allowing British firms to invest in the European Defence Agency.

Such a high level of third country convergence with the EU — in effect, a privileged partnership — will be unprecedented. Although the 2014 Ukraine Association Agreement provides a useful basic template for joint governance, the UK should demand a larger democratic say in those of the Union’s legislative and budgetary decisions that affect its new status. This could amount to a qualified majority vote in the Council for British ministers (without a veto) over single market laws and commercial policy.

A settlement on these lines requires a high level of ambition and agility in both London and Brussels. It would amount to a new category of affiliate membership for which provision will eventually have to be made in the EU’s basic treaties. But where Britain leads, others, including Ukraine and Norway, may well follow. Developing the concept of partial membership by extending its normative power and burnishing its democratic credentials will help the EU cope with its problematic wider neighbourhood without losing internal cohesion.

By pioneering the initiative to turn around British policy in this way, the Lib Dems will win support from Remainers, disappointed Leavers — and those too young to vote in 2016.

* Andrew Duff was Liberal Democrat MEP for the East of England from 1999-2014.

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  • There is a need to be careful about our language. I do of course accept that people see the world differently. However there are no longer, in my opinion, remainders, leavers and so on. That was yesterday. There are simply people who are concerned about improving their lives. Of course I recognise that many people are willing to label themselves, but see no evidence that a majority of people do.
    So our first task should be to see what relationship with the EU would be best for the U.K.,
    And collect the evidence. We then need to make sure that anyone willing to listen is told the evidence, and our conclusions.
    Obviously the countries in the EU will be suspicious of our intentions. We will only succeed if we build a consensus, and if those who support a close relationship with the rest of Europe cannot agree an how we move towards a closer relationship, then we will make no progress.

  • Chris Platts 10th Jan '23 - 5:47pm

    This seems a sensible approach.People seem to recognise that leaving the EU was mistake,but an immediate return would be too much,but agreeing to comply with certain rules and regs to enable business to trade freely makes sense,then sign up to other treaties as time goes by.

  • Nick Hopkinson 11th Jan '23 - 9:33am

    The article outlines credible policy proposals. As I argued on 5 December 2022 in LDV, we have a golden opportunity to make gains if we stand up for closer relations with the EU:

  • David Franks 11th Jan '23 - 10:39am

    Andrew’s comment is timely. What do we need to do to make the Party leadership talk out loud about closer ties to the EU. Or do we have to vote Green to get a MPs who are serious about Britain’s relationship with our EU neighbours?

  • Peter Martin 11th Jan '23 - 1:14pm

    ‘Starmer’s stated intention of “making Brexit work” is no different in principle to that of Rishi Sunak’s’.

    Maybe not. However, unless the Lib Dems come out in favour of rejoining the EU they too, even though they won’t want to use those words, will have the same intention. I don’t think many of us, even though we might have voted Leave, wanted any kind of hostility to exist between the EU and ourselves. We should all be able to agree that improving relations and the freeing up trade as far as possible should be a priority.

    Both exports and imports to the EU have shown a lot more volatility of late but whether this was due to Covid, Brexit or other factors isn’t obvious. The long term trend lines don’t look to be altered by Brexit. One obvious trend can be seen in an increasing unwillingness on the EU to increase their imports in line with their exports. The trade gap is widening. However, it has been widening for the last 25 years and Brexit doesn’t seem to have had any effect on this trend.

    Many will offer the explanation that this is due to a combination of poor quality and high prices of UK produced goods and services. This doesn’t, though explain how we manage to have a trade surplus with such countries as the USA and the R.O.W. generally.

  • Currently the only politicians talking sense about Brexit are Tobias Ellwood, Sadiq Khan and Caroline Lucas. They are doing what should be the job of the Lib Dems. As Ellwood points out, if any other policy cost 4% of GDP it would be immediately reversed even if politically embarassing. This honesty is more respectful to the public than pretending you can make Brexit work.

  • Martins says “To be clear, it is absolutely right that winning support from Remainers, disappointed Leavers — and those too young to vote in 2016” has to be a vital focus for Liberal Democrats”. He’s dead on, so why, as we bump along in single figures in the opinion polls, are our leadership not relentlessly promoting Britain’s need to negotiate a less punishing arrangement with the EU? Labour, are too scared of offending the red-wall voters to do so leaving the field wide open for us to garner support campaigning for something we believe in. Come on Sir Ed – speak up!

  • Just today Sadiq Khan has spoken out about the “denial and avoidance of the immense damage caused by Brexit”.

    So where are the Lib Dems? I would like to have a leadership contest so that this issue can be debated. And as the next general election isn’t for another 2 years now is as good a time as any to look to the next generation.

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