Amid the sheer relief of Getting Brexit Done in January 2020, most of us will have overlooked or ignored the fact that the UK’s hard-fought deal with the EU is up for review at the end of 2025.
According to current polling, the strong likelihood is that Labour, having won power, will be the ones doing the negotiating with Brussels over any changes to the current agreement. Leavers fear a betrayal, Remainers sense an opportunity.
Left-wing Europhiles are already strategising the means by which a Labour government might take Britain back into the EU. They talk of using a first term to blame all of Britain’s ills on Brexit, softening up the public for what is to come, then using a second term to begin the process of rejoining.
Officially, Labour’s policy is that it would not try to reverse Brexit, nor would it seek to rejoin the single market or customs union. Sir Keir Starmer, though, tends to waft in the wind when it comes to his political positions, so it would be foolish to assume that he will never change his mind, especially if he thought it expedient to do so.
This is, after all, a man who only three years ago, as shadow Brexit secretary, committed Labour to a second referendum, with Remain as one of the choices offered.
Eurosceptics saw plenty of warning signs in shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s speech in the US earlier this week. Reeves – who, like Sir Keir, voted Remain in 2016 – told her audience that Labour would use the 2025 review to “make trade easier with Europe, and rebuild ties with our closest neighbours”.
Despite being in Washington DC, Reeves was talking up the need for Labour to look to Brussels for Britain’s trading future. Perhaps she is already assuming Donald Trump or another Republican president will be in the White House by 2025, meaning Labour would turn its back on America anyway.
Her language on Brexit was similarly instructive. She said the Government had overseen “Brexit without a plan, introducing pervasive uncertainty into our economic life”, and talked of “the barriers to trade it has erected through its chaotic Brexit deal”.
To some Brexiteers, it sounded as if Phase 1 of the Rejoiner plot had already begun: blaming everything on Brexit and talking up closer EU ties.
Greg Hands, the Conservative Party Chairman, is among those who fear Labour will try to unpick Brexit. “We know where Sir Keir Starmer wants to be,” he says. “Less than three years ago he was committing Labour to a second referendum. The language Rachel Reeves has used is possibly designed to get support from those business leaders who were opposed to Brexit, and there is a really strong risk in all of this.”
Hands suspects that the idea of a customs union with the EU would be pushed first, partly because in the dim and distant past of Parliament’s so-called meaningful votes on the Brexit deal in April 2019, it was Ken Clarke’s motion proposing a customs union deal that came closest to defeating the Government, falling just four votes short of a majority.
“A lot of evidence points to Labour wanting to be in a customs union with the EU,” he says. “At various times they have been very specific about not being in the single market, but less specific about a customs union, because Turkey has shown that you can have a partial customs union without having free movement, though of course Turkey has no say over EU policy.
“It’s not impossible that he would then find ways of making migration easier, through more student exchanges, more skilled workers from the EU, and before you know it you’re getting closer to being back in the world of free movement.”
Net migration reached a record 606,000 last year, driven largely by non-EU nationals, which has been seized upon by Remainers as evidence that freedom of movement was never the problem in the first place.
Labour already has a playbook for using a first term to lay the groundwork for radical reform in a second term. Tony Blair’s second term in office was dominated by public service reform and the introduction of tax credits (as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) after he used his first term to build support for the policies and to raise the money to implement them by increasing taxes.
Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at King’s College London and director of the independent UK in a Changing Europe initiative, says: “I don’t think there’s any chance of [Labour] talking about rejoining in the next parliament, but it’s certainly conceivable that there will be a debate raging within the Labour Party and I would imagine that, at the first party conference after a Labour win, there would be people trying to get the EU on the agenda.”
Sir Keir wants to extend suffrage to all 16- and 17-year-olds and 3.4 million EU nationals settled in the UK, which Hands previously described as “an attempt to rig the electorate” in order to “drag the UK back into the EU by stealth”. Nadhim Zahawi, one of his predecessors, described it as “the beginning of a strategy to soften the nation up towards reversing Brexit”.
By expanding the electorate with a rejoin-minded constituency, Sir Keir would come under pressure for a second-term manifesto commitment to hold a new referendum on EU membership.
Alternatively, if Labour failed to win a majority but was the largest party at the 2024 election, it would undoubtedly fix up a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Some LibDem supporters would like to see their party taking a bold anti-Brexit stance now, but the LibDems are not currently talking about rejoining because they are making gains in areas that strongly voted Leave, such as the South West, and they are reverting to their standard operating procedure of telling local voters whatever they want to hear, rather than having a coherent national policy. The party’s price for a coalition deal, however, would surely be not only voting reform, but also movement towards rejoining the EU.
Labour rejoiners are also too canny to show their hand just yet. One passionately Europhile Labour MP tells The Telegraph: “Those 200 or so [Labour MPs] who met daily during Brexit votes seem to have abandoned even mentioning it because we appear to be chasing those Red Wall seats [that voted Leave].”
Those who helped negotiate the Brexit deal, or more formally the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), refer to Labour’s “baby steps” towards rejoining. One source involved in hammering out the deal said: “They haven’t ruled out anything involving dynamic alignment or accepting the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
“They will argue that dynamic alignment [maintaining the same regulatory standards for goods and services] will help to solve the Great Britain/Northern Ireland trade checks, and the next stage on from that is to soften EU/UK checks, and before you know it they will say ‘we are accepting their rules and standards, we might as well just rejoin’.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Brexit opportunities minister, believes that Labour’s opposition to the Retained EU Law Bill, which aims to ditch laws that resulted from Britain’s EU membership, is because Sir Keir wants to “shadow” the EU, which would mean he did not “have to bring in new laws, which would be much more difficult than doing things quietly”.
That would, of course, help to keep his options open if he was minded to yoke Britain to the EU or even seek readmission.
Labour has already started talking about the specifics of how it might try to change the Brexit deal when it comes up for renegotiation in December 2025. David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, has said Labour would pursue an agreement on food and agricultural standards, and Sir Keir has said Labour would push for a visa waiver for touring creative artists, such as pop singers.
Brexiteers argue that Labour is being naive if it thinks such changes would be cost-free. “They won’t get everything they want,” says one source involved in the original Brexit negotiations, “and anything they do want will come at a cost. People in the EU are already talking about Labour wanting to cherry-pick, like allowing free movement for creative artists so they can go on tour, but the 27 member states want Bulgarians and Romanians to be able to come here for seasonal work. The gains Labour wants to make will prove more difficult than they think.”
If Sir Keir fails to satisfy the rejoiners, they have already made it clear that they will pursue their agenda with someone else instead. Former Labour whip Rosie Duffield has said in the past that Labour backbenchers would eventually “try and shift the leadership” of the party into backing rejoining, while accepting they would need to “let the dust settle” on Brexit first. She has suggested there might be a different leader by the time that happens. Others aim to exploit his weakness.
Mike Galsworthy, the new chairman of the European Movement UK (founded in 1949 by Winston Churchill), is a Labour Party member who describes himself as the “de facto leader of the rejoin campaign in the UK”, says: “Starmer will be led by the nose rather than doing any leading. He will come under huge pressure from the public and from business to forge closer ties with Europe and he will have to either resist that pressure or cave in to it.
“It’s hard to predict which he will do, because he is a man of pragmatics rather than principles. He is reassuringly inconsistent in his word.”
Galsworthy subscribes to the view that there would be no referendum in the first term of a Labour administration, but that it would be used to make the UK “rejoin-ready” before a possible referendum if Labour won again.
If Labour did decide to explore the possibility of rejoining the EU, it first would have to reach an internal agreement on what was wanted. As the whole country knows from years of brain-numbing Brexit negotiations, there are always as many opinions on what represents the best kind of relationship with Europe as there are people in any room.
We would all have to re-familiarise ourselves with Swiss-style deals, Shengen countries, Canada models, Euratom, Europol, Horizon, passporting, rules of origin, EFTA, GATT, IEM, CETA, EAWs and the rest.
Some would push for a Norway-style arrangement, insisting it offered the best of both worlds by offering access to the single market without full membership. Others would call it rule-taking.
And if Labour did eventually decide to pursue a wholesale “Reversit”, the EU might insist on replacing the pound with the Euro. Few people on either side of the Channel believe that Brussels would ever allow Britain to rejoin under exactly the same terms it had before it left, meaning that its budget rebate and opt-outs on the single currency and Schengen travel agreement might be lost. This would be a tough sell even to 2016 Remain voters.
Rodrigo Ballester, a former cabinet member of the European Commission and now head of the Centre for European Studies at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, disagrees. He says: “The member states and the EU Commission would roll out the red carpet for Britain if Labour asked to rejoin, particularly because they have a natural sympathy for the left.
“If Labour says ‘we made a mistake, we want to go back to mummy and daddy’, they would be very receptive and I think rejoining could be fast-tracked to a three- or four-year process. Most of your legislation is already in line with the EU, and I think it is entirely possible that Britain would be given opt-outs on the Euro and perhaps on migration. I don’t think it would be a take-it-or-leave-it situation.”
Rejoiners rely heavily on opinion polls that show up to 60 per cent of people saying Brexit was a bad idea, with a majority in some polls saying that if another referendum was held now, they would vote Remain.
But that is not the same as wanting another referendum. Fewer than 10 per cent of people regard Brexit as an important issue, according to polling by Ipsos, and pollsters believe that if the economy improves, voters are less likely to regard Brexit as a failure.
Nor do we know today what the EU will look like in 10 years’ time. Ukraine, which was granted candidate status for accession to the EU last year, could be a full member by then. Other candidates for accession include Turkey, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are likely to be a drain on EU resources.
Rejoiners also like to talk about the demographic imperative for a return to EU membership. According to YouGov, 75 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. And, when they are the generation running the country, they will want to impose their will, or so the argument goes.
But in 10 years’ time, as the Brexit debate fades from memory and a new generation comes along with no memory of Erasmus schemes or free movement, will EU membership be their top priority, or will they be more concerned about climate change?
There is also no guarantee that the EU would allow Britain to rejoin. As far as some member states were concerned, Britain was as welcome as HP Sauce on a croissant, and having it back in the fold would give the UK the chance to veto Brussels’ pet projects.
Britain is the only country ever to have left the EU, and some in Brussels have already expressed concerns that if it rejoined, it might change its mind again.
Then there is the referendum issue. Having been an advocate of a second referendum first time around, Sir Keir would surely have to promise the British public a popular vote not only on rejoining, but on the final deal.
Past experience shows that even if 60 per cent of people claim to be unhappy with Brexit, that would not necessarily translate into 60 per cent voting to rejoin. Before the 2016 referendum more than two-thirds of opinion polls predicted Britain would vote Remain, and bookmakers were offering odds of 1/4 for a Remain vote, meaning they gave Leave just a 20 per cent chance.
Would Sir Keir risk his entire career on such an uncertainty? Equally relevant is the question of whether he, or anyone else in Labour, would have the stamina to see the fight through to the end. Joining the EU is not an overnight process. It would take years to get to the stage of holding a referendum, and several more years for the UK to be accepted if it applied to join under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union.
As Professor Menon says: “If you say ‘let’s rejoin’, you are talking a 10-year project, minimum. Our governments have shown that they aren’t very good at thinking beyond next Friday.”
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