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Can Starmer Renegotiate Brexit?

Zhihao Hu

In the wake of King Charles’s recent visit to France, the UK finds itself once again immersed in discussions about the possibility of rejoining the European Union. French President Macron engaged in talks with prominent British figures during the visit, notably including Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party and a prospective candidate for victory in the 2024 General Election. Starmer, a staunch advocate for rejoining the EU, has made a commitment to negotiate a more favourable Brexit deal for the UK should he emerge victorious in next year’s election.

For many within the UK, the prospect of rejoining the EU represents a departure from the experience of remaining within the bloc. This sentiment is accentuated by the complex backdrop of past COVID-19 politics and the ongoing Ukraine conflict, both of which have fuelled geopolitical tensions and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe. Notably, countries like Germany, Spain, and Poland show noticeable voter divides. Against this backdrop, the potential return of the UK to the EU has become a prominent news item, one with the potential to impact the cohesion and unity of the European Union as a whole.

Recent data from YouGov reveals a substantial shift in British sentiment toward Brexit, with 55% of respondents leaning towards the idea of remaining in the EU, a figure that includes 18% of former Leave supporters. In light of this shifting sentiment, Sir Keir Starmer has reaffirmed Labour’s dedication to bolstering the UK’s EU ties if the party assumes power. He has also openly expressed his intention to renegotiate Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with the EU, citing its inadequacy. In a recent interview with the Financial Times in Montreal, Starmer advocated for a deeper trading relationship with the EU.

This transformation in both public sentiment and the stance of key political figures raises important questions regarding its underlying causes and the wisdom of this shift. It signifies a notable shift away from Euroscepticism and towards a strong desire within certain segments of the UK population and political spectrum to rejoin the European Union. As the debate continues to unfold, it remains to be seen how these developments will shape the future course of UK-EU relations and the broader European political landscape.

Brexit’s Mixed Impact: Economic and Social Challenges in the UK

According to the UK in a Changing Europe, Brexit has fulfilled certain Leave voter goals like restoring self-determination and curbing EU migration. However, it has also triggered substantial declines in daily life, particularly in economic and social well-being. Satisfaction with wages, the economy, the NHS, and the cost of living has significantly dropped. These consequences persistently disrupt UK trade and worsen labour shortages, especially in crucial sectors like healthcare. Despite the valuable contributions of EU migrants in supporting the UK’s healthcare and grocery sectors and society at large, their impact has been overshadowed by the repercussions of Brexit.

The Shortcoming of Truss’s Libertarian Economic Policy

A persistent issue is the UK’s sluggish economic growth due to its market-centric approach. Recent fiscal events, characterised by increased market deregulation and substantial tax cuts funded through borrowing, lack a credible foundation for long-term economic sustainability. The International Monetary Fund reports declining trade, investment, and employment post-Brexit, and public opinion raises doubts about these economic ambitions. Shifting from David Cameron’s “age of austerity” to Boris Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” and Truss’s “ambitious economic plan”, recent surveys reveal that 52% of respondents, including 46% of Conservative supporters, favour tax increases for health, education, and social benefits. Given the advantages the single market brought to UK businesses and industries, addressing the post-Brexit relationship with European markets becomes imperative. Delaying action will worsen disparities, rendering them harder to resolve. A new government is essential but may not suffice alone; evolving public attitudes might require a reevaluation of market-friendly economic outcomes.

Brexit’s Impact on UK Territorial Politics

Brexit has significantly strained the UK’s constitutional stability and territorial cohesion. The failure to acknowledge the substantial Remain majority in Scotland, coupled with issues like the potential Scottish independence referendum, border complexities, and Northern Ireland’s reunification concerns, have exacerbated these tensions.
The UK Government’s pursuit of Eurosceptic voters and internal crisis management has strained its relationships with the devolved nations. This narrow political focus has disregarded the interests and votes in these regions, leading to weakened bonds and territorial disputes. While Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones resisted this trend, a joint communique with Nicola Sturgeon reinforced the broader narrative of the United Kingdom. It cautioned against the UK Government’s departure from the EU without taking into account the wishes of Scotland or Wales. The Scottish Government’s call for a ‘double-majority’ requirement highlights the need for new constitutional mechanisms, aimed at upholding the commitments made after the independence referendum and ensuring a more responsive Union. Devolution, initially introduced to bolster the Union, has been undermined by the territorially differentiated Brexit.

Scotland’s Right to Decide: Shaping Its EU Future and Immigration Policy

One SNP member noted, Scotland, inspired by nations like Ireland, Finland, and Portugal, aims to break free from the UK’s Euroscepticism. Central to this endeavour is Scotland’s sovereignty and its influence on EU affiliation. The Points-based immigration system has exacerbated labour shortages in sectors like healthcare, agriculture, and hospitality. Additionally, classifying EU students as international students led to higher fees and decreased UK enrolment. The UK Government’s immigration approach doesn’t resonate with many Scots who largely opposed Brexit. Scottish views on immigration differ from the UK’s, with the Scottish Government and most Scottish Parliament parties advocating for a more open system to address labour shortages and demographic challenges. An independent Scotland could shape its immigration policy to align better with its economic needs and internationalist outlook, diverging from the UK’s stance. Considering the UK as a union of nations, Scotland’s ability to tailor its immigration system to its specific needs becomes a compelling case.

Challenges and Considerations on the Path to Rejoining the EU

Rejoining the EU demands profound political shifts and a renewed consensus within the UK. This undertaking should be grounded in genuine reflection rather than expedience, given the challenges stemming from the aftermath of Brexit, including a possible diminished global role. It is widely recognized that rejoining the EU would entail a different experience compared to past à la carte membership, with European leaders likely to resist previous privileges, such as special budgetary rebates. This inevitably raises questions about the UK’s increased financial contributions, a matter that must be addressed before rejoining becomes viable.

The UK’s conduct during the Brexit era, including negotiations, treatment of EU citizens, trade, tax, social, environmental, and labour policies, will play a pivotal role in shaping these dynamics. Another crucial consideration is the nature of the EU-UK strategic partnership, particularly concerning immigration, border control, and human rights. Notable disparities between the UK and the EU on immigration management highlight issues like border control and human rights principles. Recent UK legislation, exemplified by the Nationality and Borders Act and the Illegal Bill, highlights the government’s contrasting approach to immigration compared to the EU’s inclusive stance. The path to rejoining the EU necessitates ongoing compromise and sincere discussions.

Zhihao Hu is a postgraduate student who recently completed a dissertation on the Territorial Politics of Immigration in Minority Nations at the University of Edinburgh

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