Media that Matters – Special UK General Election Edition

A selection of recent press articles on the UK’s new government, where it might
stand with Europe, and the changed political landscape across the UK. Our
selection includes a thoughtful piece from Ireland, an examination of the UK/EU
defence relationship and Bertelsman Stiftung’s analysis of the general election.

Keir Starmer ruled out rejoining the EU. Now he must think again.

William Keegan in the Guardian
Labour’s new prime minister is in a position of strength in relation to Brexit. He
must be bold for Britain’s sake.

This election has upended British politics. A strange new landscape is

Rafael Behr in the Guardian:

Sinn Féin dominates Northern Ireland with unionists in post-Brexit shambles

Politico looks at how Brexit has changed the politics of Northern Ireland, calls for Sinn Fein MPs
to sit at Westminster and the possibility of a Border Pool that could bring a united Ireland and full EU membership for the entire island.

From the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

Mark Leonard, ECFR’s director, on the cooperation with the EU:

  • Keir Starmer has committed to negotiate a broad security pact with Brussels and to reset
    the relationship with Europe. There is an opportunity to craft a new relationship that
    encompasses all the different dimensions of 21st-century security, from data and
    supply chains to energy and security. The opportunity for a fundamental reset is in all
    parties’ best interests because the world, Europe and the UK have all fundamentally
    changed since the referendum in 2016.
  • Faced with the danger of Trump in the White House again, Putin continuing to pursue his
    expansionist aims, and the military and economic challenge of Xi Jinping’s China,
    Europe would be much stronger if it could face these challenges shoulder to shoulder
    with the UK.
  • The election of a new British government is also an illustration of how much the UK itself
    has changed. Starmer’s government is entirely composed of politicians who voted
    Remain in the referendum and feel emotionally part of Europe. They have committed
    themselves to staying outside of the single market and freedom of movement, but they
    have none of the hangups which the last government had around abstract notions of
    sovereignty. Instead, they are in favour of the rule of law and respect the authority of
    the European Court of Justice. And they don’t want to work around Brussels but desire
    a closer relationship with the EU as well as member states.
  • There is a six-month window to build a new security partnership between the beginning
    of a new government in the UK and that in the USA. It is in the interests of all sides to
    use this urgent time to build a new partnership that will make the EU and the UK safer
    and more prosperous.

Camille Grand, distinguished policy fellow, on defence cooperation:

  • The new Labour government has shown a willingness to explore much closer
    cooperation with the European Union on defence matters. Beyond straightforward
    initiatives such as establishing a partnership with the European Defence Agency and
    aligning more closely with EU defence industry projects, the future of this partnership
    remains uncertain as the scars of the Brexit negotiation continue to complicate the
    establishment of a mutually beneficial relationship.
  • The UK’s traditionally high profile in NATO and its strong stance on Ukraine are likely to
    continue but will be under fiscal pressure. The British armed forces face numerous
    difficult and costly choices regarding defence investment.
  • There is a temptation to leverage bilateral relations, building on the Lancaster House
    Treaty with Paris, and to develop a similar treaty with Berlin. The bilateral relations are
    also solid awith Warsaw, and Stockholm, where the UK’s reputation is strong. While
    this could enhance military and industrial relations, it must not come at the expense of
    relations with Brussels. Lastly, the French parliamentary election might impact this, as
    the RN favors bilateralism over EU or NATO-centric approaches. However, differing
    foreign and security policy priorities will limit this option.

Agathe Demarais, senior policy fellow, on geoeconomic implications:

  • Rebuilding UK-EU collaboration through joint sanctions on Russia is a clear opportunity.
    Since Brexit, London and Brussels have implemented sanctions independently,
    leading to regulatory divergences – another way to refer to sanctions loopholes – that
    Moscow and other malicious actors can exploit. A united British-European front on
    sanctions would also both sides to prepare for a potential Trump 2.0 presidency, as
    Trump could choose to water down or even lift US sanctions against Moscow. In that
    scenario, the sanctions burden would fall solely on Europe, necessitating a unified UK-
    EU approach.
  • Greater UK-EU collaboration on countering China’s aggressive behavior remains
    unlikely. The EU perceives the UK as closely aligned with the US on China-related
    measures, limiting collaboration potential as the EU seeks to carve its own path
    instead of following US demands. Additionally, Brussels may not prioritize
    collaboration with the UK on these topics, viewing the UK as a small economy without
    critical assets, such as key technology, that are essential for EU interests.

Marie Dumoulin, director of ECFR’s wider Europe programme on support for Ukraine:

  • In the UK, there is broad bipartisan consensus on supporting Ukraine, so the election is
    unlikely to change this stance. However, two factors may influence future policies: the
    government’s fiscal leeway and potential trade-offs required to sustain this support,
    and the level of coordination with other European allies, particularly given the political
    situations in France and Germany.

New government in the United Kingdom – Election result analysis

Bertelsmann Stiftung

The United Kingdom (UK) emerges from a long and hugely consequential period of centre-right
populism with an exceptionally powerful, centre-left Labour government, bucking a European trend of either political stalemate or chaos combined with a marked shift to the right. A moderate government in Downing Street that looks towards Europe raises hopes that British resilience and resurgence can contribute to more European unity Iin a geopolitical world. Yet barriers to reconnecting with the EU remain, and the surge in support for Reform, a populist protest party, is a reminder that British politics reminds volatile.

Democracy in action

As voters across the continent increasingly question democracy as an effective system of government, the force of popular choice was in full display at yesterday’s UK General Election. Voters turned out in their millions to decisively expel the centre-right Conservative Party, one of the most successful election winning machines in political history, after almost a decade and a half of uninterrupted rule. This period was marked by political misjudgment, unforced policy errors and personal failings on the part of the political class at a scale rarely experienced in developed countries. Combined with global developments, this has led to creeping economic decline and a rise in both regional inequality and societal divisions, the impact of which is felt in households across the country. Labour’s victory under the new Prime Minister Keir Starmer – edging towards 410 seats in a parliament of 650 and thus a majority of around 170 – is in the same territory of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, which heralded in 13 years of virtually uncontested Labour rule. Labour also defeated the Scottisch National Party in Scotland, one of the few open battlelines in the run-up to election day.
There is no precedent in British politics of a party coming from opposition and overhauling an electoral deficit that had risen in the last two general elections in quite this way. Labour’s ideas did not capture the imagination of the electorate and the result is largely a reflection of the anger of British voters towards the Conservative party’s record.

Economic stagnation, but a strong foundation

Economic growth since 2010 has been lackluster to the point of stagnation. Measured by disposable income, British households are on average worse off than they were at the beginning of the outgoing parliament, and the average middle-income household in the UK is today 20% poorer than its counterpart in Germany. Government debt has risen from 65% of GDP to almost 100% during the Conservative’s time in office, while wages flatlined and taxes are highest since the 1960s. Brexit, a project undertaken without a truthful public debate on the economic and political trade-offs involved, exacerbated longstanding and deep-seated problems, notably a toxic combination of low growth (due largely to a productivity gap vis-à-vis countries like Germany and France that has tripled since 2008) and rising inequality (the UK has the highest levels of regional economic disparities of any developed country in the world). Unlike Blair in the late 90s, Labour thus inherits a financial legacy more comparable to that of Clemence Atlee’s Labour government after the second world war. With this in mind, it is easy to forget that the UK remains one of the 30 richest countries in the world, boasts the world’s sixth largest economy and is hugely resourceful as an innovative powerhouse, with world leading firms in sectors such as financial services, aerospace, life sciences, creative industries and education. Crucially, the country’s strong governance and well-established rule of law proved itself to be resilient to populist pressures and going forward, the country remains well-positioned for future challenges.
A strong services sector and advantages specifically in the production of renewable energies (much needed by an energy starved continent on the other side of the channel) further stand out as considerable assets. The UK’s cultural soft power as well as its diplomatic clout and military resources, including a nuclear deterrent, make it a crucial stakeholder and contributor to European security, which has resurfaced as a first order priority since the return of geopolitics and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
So what does the new UK government mean for the bigger European picture?

Boosting trade while keeping Brexit

The narrow issue of EU-UK trading relations, a troubled and unhappy arrangement that looks set to wipe out a striking 4% out of UK GDP per year in the long run (€38bn in 2018, compared to EU membership fees of €15.6bn in that year), will certainly not change overnight, despite the single market being the most obvious source of growth for a new Labour government looking to kick-start its economy. The exhaustion of Brexit, which proved hugely divisive across the country, caused Labour to exclude any substantial rapprochement to the EU single market, or indeed the possibility of rejoining. Keir Starmer only recently doubled down on this approach, all but excluding the chances of the UK rejoining the bloc “in my lifetime”. The more interesting question is thus what Labour has not excluded. Here, permitting oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as well as other regulatory authorities, a decision on the best form of dynamic alignment with the EU’s regulatory regime and commitments on level playing field provisions in areas the EU finds important, would open up new spaces to develop the current deal the country has with the EU and unlock further positive agendas. But in much the same way that the impact of Brexit has been gradual rather than explosive, any economic rapprochement will move at a similarly low-pace, requiring significant confidence-building measures.

Shared security interests and a new pact

Shared security concerns with the EU and key member states are the more immediate game in town, and Labour’s proposal of a security pact with the EU will be met with openness in Brussels. Indeed, a new bilateral security pact with Germany is likely to be announced this summer (owing, to be fair, to work carried out under the Conservative government). A possible new French government that is sceptical of both the EU and of ties with Germany will certainly open up new space for a stronger UK-German axis. In any case, Labour will quickly find itself in the thick of global affairs, with a NATO Summit next week and – crucially – the opportunity to host the fourth summit of the European Political Community (EPC) in London in mid-July. Keir Starmer, who will be the envy of many of his embattles European counterparts, will without doubt use the opportunity to set a new tone of rapprochement with Europe. European leaders, especially those in the EU and accession countries, will in turn look out for what Labour’s investment might be. Further support for Ukraine, including commitments to support its reconstruction, as well as cooperation on energy security and migration are the things to look out for. But if Labour’s careful re-orientation towards Europe is to produce tangible outcomes, it will take two to tango. The EU has had no discernible political position on its relations with the UK since the Brexit negotiations were concluded in 2020, but its agenda arguably dictates reaching out to its former member. With the Commission and key member states intent on shaping a new European security order, key strategies are to enhance economic security, move forward with EU enlargement and engage with wider Europe in a more strategic way as it searches for like-minded partners. This will require new levels of pragmatism, flexibility and policy coherence on the part of the EU, and engagement with the UK, a like-minded ally by any standards, will quickly emerge as a test case in its bid to be a more coherent geopolitical actor.
Ideas for a reset A starting point towards resetting EU-UK relations, as we set out in more detail here, would be for both sides to quickly define shared strategic priorities and strengthen the institutional backbone of cooperation (for instance by instituting EU-UK summits). Foreign policy and security cooperation should also be improved via specially designated working groups. Gradually deepening and expanding trade and investment relations should occur in a parallel process, commensurate with new levels of trust and confidence. Internal political dynamics in the UK will remain influential here. One thing to look out for, given the huge size of Labour’s majority, are new and unforeseen internal dynamics created by the new intake,
possibly pressurizing the leadership to be more ambitions on shifting closer to the EU, in an inverse logic to the effect the hard right European Research Group (ERG) had one mainstream Conservatives.
A strong performance of the pro-European Liberal Democrats will add further pressure.
The future of the Conservative Party, meanwhile, is wide-open, with the populist but ideologically empty Reform party gaining a remarkable 15 percent of the vote, largely from protest voters who are furious with the Conservatives. This is without doubt a reminder of the volatile political climate of this decade. Reform’s leader, Nigel Farage, is a hugely effective political operator. Having been elected to parliament he now finds himself with a new political stage, suggesting populism in the UK may not be quite as dead as some might hope.

Jake Benford
Senior Project Manager
Programm Europas Zukunft

Picture credit: Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,