UK-EU Relations and Foreign Policy After the Election

This article was first published on Kirsty Hughes’s substack on 1 July 2024: https://kirstyhughes.substack.com/p/uk-eu-relations-and-foreign-policy

By Kirsty Hughes

A new Labour government is not going to have any breathing space on foreign policy as it picks up the reins – including on European relations. Today, Hungary takes over the EU’s six month presidency with its deliberately provocative strapline of ‘make Europe great again’. Yesterday, Le Pen’s National Rally came top of the polls with 34.5% of the vote in the first round of Macron’s rashly-called election.

The make-up, challenges and degree of instability of France’s politics in the coming years will be clear by the end of the second round next Sunday, 7th July, possibly even with Jordan Bardella as prime minister but also possibly not, as an uneven collaboration, across different constituencies, between the left and Macron’s crumbling centre evolves. Instability beckons.

Keir Starmer will have early opportunities to meet Emmanuel Macron, at the NATO summit in Washington from 9-11 July, and at the European Political Community, the broad pan-European summit that was Macron’s brainchild, meeting at Blenheim Palace on the 18th July. Possibly on the 18th too, the new European Parliament will re-elect Ursula von der Leyen as the European Commission president for the next five years. But her route to a majority in the new parliament is somewhat rocky – gain votes from far right Italian premier Giorgia Meloni’s party and risk losing them from the Socialists and Democrats, and Greens. Von der Leyen will probably make it but it’s not definite at all.

Most notable, from a UK-perspective, about these and other European developments is how little sway or say the UK has from outside the EU post-Brexit. If the UK was still one of the big three in the EU, the UK, with a newly-elected centrist government would look like a stabilising force, ready to work with France, Germany and other member states to rein in Hungary, and to exert some diplomacy in the face of wherever and however France’s unstable politics evolves next.

But Starmer now has to handle the UK’s bilateral relations with France and other EU member states and the overall EU-UK relationship from the outside – and will have to stay out of many key issues. If the UK, ironically enough, starts to look like one of the more stable bigger European states, it will nonetheless not be able to regain its pre-Brexit influence as a leading European power.

What will we see?

David Lammy penned a long piece in Foreign Affairs in April (see my blog on that here) claiming Labour’s foreign policy will be based on ‘progressive realism’. This seems to essentially mean protecting and promoting the UK’s interests and – where possible – values, being loyal to allies and being pragmatic. It’s not much of a guide.

Some of Labour’s foreign policy approach has already been well enough signalled. The UK will continue as a key NATO player, aim to raise defence spending, and continue in support of Ukraine, including arms. Ukraine will be a key area of continuing constructive relations with the EU and member states too.

Less clear is what a Starmer government will do in the face of the genocide in Gaza. It’s past time to end UK arms sales, and publish the foreign office legal advice on whether such sales are compatible with international law. Earlier statements by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy suggest a Labour government would suspend arms sales in the face of legal advice on the risk of serious breaches of international law. But will they? It’s not forgotten that Keir Starmer took until March to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

David Lammy did say a week ago that Labour would comply with an ICC arrest warrant for Netanyahu, if one is forthcoming. But with one of Sunak’s government’s last moves being to challenge the jurisdiction of the ICC, another question now is whether Labour will move swiftly to withdraw this challenge.

On climate change, Labour talks the talk but, as we saw even before the election, Starmer dumped his big £28 billion a year climate pledge, and how far or fast his government will move is an open question – including on the vital just transition needed from north sea oil and gas. The UK ought to be a serious international player in these crucial years for tackling the twin climate and biodiversity crises, as right-wing forces start to slow or obstruct vital actions in Europe and beyond. But this needs strategy, commitment and funding. How far will the Starmer government rise to that challenge domestically and internationally (the two closely intertwined).

The biggest question for any European country in the rest of this year is whether November will bring a second Trump term in the US. If so, it will increase international instability and impact on issues from climate change to support for Ukraine, relations with Russia and China, and how or whether the US stays engaged in NATO. Even with a Biden – or other Democrat – victory, the UK should be interacting and cooperating closely with the EU on US relations (to the extent it can from outside the EU). What the UK can’t hope for – and will look foolish if it tries – is the old, now entirely irrelevant aim – of being a bridge between the EU and US.

And EU Relations?

Labour’s approach to EU-UK relations is fairly minimalist given Starmer has ruled out either re-joining the EU or membership of the EU’s customs union or single market or allowing free movement of people again. Expect to hear much on moves towards a veterinary deal, where the UK will have to align with EU rules, detailed efforts to negotiate mutual recognition of professional qualifications, and more of substance on some sort of EU-UK security pact and related structures. There may be good news on easing mobility for touring musicians and perhaps, something – Erasmus maybe – for younger people.

Various commentators are suggesting that the EU is too busy with other challenges to want to engage much with the UK on talks to ease some of the burdens of Brexit. But this is a mis-reading of the politics. Starmer is not about to suggest a major re-negotiation of the trade and cooperation agreement. And EU leaders in Brussels and the member states will want to establish a decent, high-level relationship with the UK’s new prime minister and government.

Certainly, the EU will only want to focus on issues and possible adjustments that are in its interests too. But the EU can cope with some technical talks on a few areas. And establishing broader security cooperation, plus possibly some alignment around carbon border taxes, are all feasible.

It’s worth underlining though that the power balance so obvious through the Brexit years has not shifted. The EU has more economic and political clout than the UK. The new UK government will need to be better prepared than the various shambolic Tory ones were. As for hopes that a Starmer government may move to re-join the EU or its single market by a second term, if there is one, that’s not obvious at all. It’s not been signalled and would Labour really want to re-open all that ahead of a second election. It should but, for now, it looks highly unlikely.

Migration and asylum is a key area where UK policies and UK-EU relations may overlap. Starmer has said his government will move to process the backlog of asylum claims while tackling the traffickers and dropping the Tories Rwanda scheme. Labour’s clear abandonment of the reactionary and failed Rwanda scheme may, at least, have the wider plus of discouraging some EU governments pushing for something similar. But Labour, with its rejection of returning to EU free movement and Starmer’s rhetoric on a border security command, is treading warily around what it sees as a neuralgic issue.

Geopolitics of an unstable world

In a week’s time, we will have a new UK government. It faces a huge domestic agenda. But the world will not wait for Starmer’s government to find its feet. The challenges will be there from day one. The Tories, especially in their Brexit rhetoric of a ‘global Britain’, both nostalgically and deliberately over-estimated the UK’s potential clout, and underestimated or denied how much Brexit would crush what limited but real influence the UK did have. Yet, within its diplomatic and political limits, now is a moment when the UK will need to work with other key democratic players to promote rights and security in a deeply unstable world.

Picture credit: Kirsty Hughes