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OPINION - Can Keir Starmer negotiate a better Brexit deal?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Securing the Windsor Framework, rejoining Horizon Europe, ditching plans for a new post-Brexit UK product safety symbol. Is Britain embarking on a remorseless march towards de facto EU membership? The short answer is: no. The long answer is: really, no, but also you’re asking the wrong question.

Should he be asked to form the next government, as today’s exclusive Ipsos survey for the Standard suggests, Keir Starmer will face the same problem as every Tory leader since 2016. That is, how to manage the UK’s relationship with the far larger and more powerful trading bloc on its doorstep.

Starmer’s position (no, not that one!) is that Britain will remain outside of the EU’s single market and customs union. So far, so Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech. In large part, this is the Labour Party reconciling itself with the economic damage of Brexit. Nonetheless, Starmer, who is today in Paris meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, has stated he wants to secure a “much better” Brexit deal. Can he?

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), signed by the UK and EU in December 2020, contains a clause requiring it to be reviewed after five years, i.e. in 2026. This has got some on the closer alignment side quite excited. Could this mean bolstering the TCA, including agreements on veterinary standards, professional qualifications, labour mobility arrangements, defence, security, carbon trading and the like? Not so fast.

As this excellent report by UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) points out, that clause is, erm, a little vague. A maximalist approach might indeed involve some of the above. Alternatively, the clause could be satisfied by a cursory technical check of how the TCA is being implemented with no ambition to make any changes. This mismatch is akin to dinner between two people, only one of whom thinks they’re on a date.

To accompany its report, UKICE held a fascinating discussion at lunchtime which spanned Britain’s prospects, its appetite for that more maximalist approach, and whether the EU would be prepared to negotiate. For the full humblebrag, I’d like to note that I watched this debate while at the gym.

Anand Menon, UKICE director, comes down on the curmudgeonly side of things. Why would the EU be prepared to negotiate anything substantial, he asks? Not least when the TCA, as it currently stands, is a pretty darn good deal for Brussels, what with it being a largely goods-based agreement, an area in which the EU enjoys a trade surplus with the UK. Meanwhile, we keep delaying our border checks...

On the more optimistic end is Peter Foster, public policy editor of the Financial Times. He argues that low expectations for what can be achieved at this five-year review threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that if it is prepared to give the EU reason to come to the table, a Starmer administration ought to aim high.

Yes, Britain is what the EU terms a ‘third country’. Legally, that puts us on a par with any other non-member state. Except, we aren’t a normal third country. Because of the unique position of Northern Ireland, our geographical proximity to Europe, the size of our economy, our defence and security strengths, the sheer gravitational force of London – Britain will always be treated differently.

That never meant German car manufacturers or Italian prosecco producers were going to intervene to ensure unfair access to the single market. But it is a reminder that if the UK shows willing, gives Brussels a reason to negotiate, rebuilds trust and rids the notion that everything between us is a zero-sum game, then we can begin to file the last seven years as an unfortunate episode and move forward, together, in the pursuit of peace and mutual prosperity. I mean, what’s the alternative?

In the comment pages, Nimco Ali calls it disgraceful that we still attack brave women who share their stories of abuse. Guto Harri says meeting Emmanuel Macron is a coup for Starmer, but that he should be wary too. And for something completely different, Zoological Society of London CEO Matthew Gould on why he will feed his party guests mealworm tarts.

Finally, anyone who walks their dog in Highbury Fields already knows it’s basically a catwalk. Burberry just made it official.

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