Sir Keir Starmer was criticised by Europhile politicians on Monday after the Labour leader ruled out any future return of the UK to the European Union single market or customs union.
Starmer used a speech on Monday evening to denounce the “mess” created by Brexit and its aftermath and set out a five-point plan to tackle the economic pain while refusing to reverse the decision. A different government could “make Brexit work”, he claimed.
Since becoming leader of the opposition two years ago Starmer has accepted that the UK would leave the EU, but Monday’s speech marks a tactical shift involving a more critical stance towards Johnson’s deal.
“Given that 45 per cent of people think Brexit is going badly against 27 per cent think it’s going well — and yet most people would still stick with their voting decision from 2016- this seems a pragmatic place for Starmer to be,” said Ben Page, chief executive of pollster Ipsos.
As shadow Brexit secretary under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer was an advocate of a second Brexit referendum, a policy which contributed to the loss of many so-called “Red Wall” seats in the party’s heartlands.
Now he is determined to scotch any talk of a Labour government taking Britain back into the EU.
“Keir Starmer has strengthened the case for independence by embracing the Tories’ hard Brexit,” said Ian Blackford, Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party, which is campaigning for an independent Scotland to re-enter the EU. “By running scared of the Tories and mutating into a pale imitation of Boris Johnson, Starmer is offering no real change at all.”
Stella Creasy, chair of Labour Movement For Europe, said the speech “finally opens the door” to a different future with Europe. “We urge Keir to make sure nothing is off the table as a solution in the fight to tackle the cost of living crisis and protect jobs, trade and security,” she said.
Starmer said a Labour government would try to negotiate mutual recognition of professional qualifications, strike a veterinary agreement, make it easier for artists to make short visits to the continent, align data adequacy rules and keep Britain in EU science programmes such as the flagship €95bn Horizon project.
European governments gave a positive response to Starmer’s ideas, while acknowledging that he was unlikely to be in power for a while. “There is positive stuff in there but everything is a balance of rights and obligations and it depends what obligations the UK is willing to agree to in return for rights,” said one diplomat.
The row over the implementation of post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland has poisoned relations between the EU and the UK.
Boris Johnson’s government has tabled legislation that it says will “fix” problems in the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol by giving ministers powers in domestic law to unilaterally override the Brexit treaty with the EU. Brussels has in turn threatened a potential trade war.
The stand-off over the protocol has put the rest of EU-UK economic relations into the diplomatic deep freeze, and has blocked UK participation in Horizon.
But one European Commission official said that if London co-operated over the protocol there was potential, as Starmer suggested, to open Horizon, smooth trade and make it easier for artists and sports people to make short trips to Europe.
Starmer also promised to seek an agreement on the “mutual recognition of professional qualifications” with Brussels, which he claims would ensure UK professional services companies can compete in the EU.
The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement contains a framework for further discussion on mutual recognition of qualifications, but little progress has been made.
There was strong resistance from some EU countries over fears that British lawyers, accountants and architects would scoop up business in the bloc, the commission official said. “It is very political. Member states would be concerned.”
Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at Cambridge university, pointed out that the EU-Canada free trade agreement, which contained a similar framework for services, had demonstrated the limitations of such deals.
“Canada has only managed one deal, for architects, and that took nine rounds of talks,” she said.
Labour on Scotland
The Labour party also clarified its position on Scotland on Monday. Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, said the party would not do any deal with the Scottish National Party in the event of a hung Parliament in Westminster.
Boris Johnson, the Conservative prime minister, has claimed Labour would be forced to form a coalition with the SNP if it is the largest party but falls short of a majority after the next election.
“All this nonsense talk of deals is straight from the Trump playbook of fake news,” Sarwar said in a speech in London.
“Let me make one thing crystal clear today . . . regardless of the outcome of the next UK general election, Labour will do no deal with the SNP.”