Global EditionASIA 中文双语Français
Home / World / Europe

Starmer walks an uneven road on European relations

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily | Updated: 2024-07-10 07:27
Share - WeChat
British Prime Minister Keir Starmer poses for a selfie with Labour Member of Parliament Dawn Butler in London on Monday. PA

At the 2019 UK general election, on a pledge to "Get Brexit done", the Conservative Party achieved an 80-seat majority.

At the 2024 general election, Brexit played its part as the Conservative Party was voted out and the Labour Party regained power with a 175-seat majority, as unresolved Brexit issues played a huge role in splitting the right-wing vote.

The United Kingdom's voting system means Labour won with just 34 percent of the popular vote, a result the Electoral Reform Society called "the most disproportional in British electoral history".

This means the party is charged with plotting the future path of the country, knowing that the country is still divided, with Europe one of the most contentious topics.

The rise of the Reform UK party, at the expense of the Conservatives, highlights how volatile Brexit remains, but at the same time, a survey by pollster YouGov carried out during the election campaign showed 53 percent of respondents thought Brexit's negatives outweighed any benefits.

Rebuilding relations with the UK's European neighbors, after a government so keen on putting distance between them, is a priority for Labour, and one about which its messaging is sometimes contradictory.

"With Labour, Britain will stay outside of the European Union. But to seize the opportunities ahead, we must make Brexit work," said the unequivocal statement of the party's 2024 election manifesto.

Not wishing to revisit the past, it sees a very different future. "We will reset the relationship and seek to deepen ties with our European friends, neighbors and allies," it continued.

New Foreign Secretary David Lammy's first act was to meet his German, Polish and Swedish counterparts, saying this was "just the beginning" of the reset.

"My message will be simple: Let us seize the opportunity for a reset, working even more closely together to tackle shared challenges," he said.

In the 2016 referendum on Britain's EU membership, Lammy supported the losing Remain campaign.

Now in office, he has already accepted an invitation to attend a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in October, an opportunity declined by the last Conservative government.

Former UK national security adviser Kim Darroch told The Guardian that while it was "understandable" Labour leader Keir Starmer had not discussed Europe much in the campaign, "the reality is that, eight years after Brexit, the path to national renewal will be much shorter if it involves a greatly strengthened relationship with Europe".

Starmer spoke to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen the day after the election, with a statement saying they "discussed areas of close cooperation between the UK and the EU", and "emphasized the importance of the unique relationship between the UK and EU in addressing these challenges".

'Shared priorities'

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: "I know Keir Starmer personally; we have often spoken and met. He will be a very good, very successful prime minister. I am convinced about that." And in the midst of his own country's parliamentary election, French President Emmanuel Macron found time for a phone call covering "shared priorities, including migration and the economy".

Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris has indicated the EU's door is open to a new relationship with the UK, but hinted it should take the initiative.

However, Business Secretary of the UK government Jonathan Reynolds said any compromise on freedom of movement to improve trade relations is not happening.

" (It) is something that is part of membership of the EU and ... we're not revisiting that," he said.

"These are things that I think are in the UK's interest, they are also in the EU's interest, that doesn't mean it's an easy negotiation, but of course we should always be seeking to make those opportunities real for everyone across the UK."

On July 18, Starmer will host leaders from the European Political Community at Blenheim Palace. This is a pan-European intergovernmental forum formed in response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The departure of so many politicians associated with Brexit offers a fresh start for the UK and the EU, with the bloc open to its former member moving back closer, if not returning to the family house, and the UK also seemingly keen.

But both sides have conditions that need to be met for this to happen and Starmer knows he must tread carefully in the political minefield of European affairs.

After meeting with the leaders of Northern Ireland in Belfast on Monday, Starmer said he will secure an improved agreement with the EU on post-Brexit trade rules and revamp the "botched deal" signed by former prime minister Boris Johnson.

He said his new government would first need to implement changes under the current agreement to build trust with the EU.

Most Viewed in 24 Hours
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349