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27 October 2021

The UK-EU relationship is unravelling before Keir Starmer’s eyes – but still he ties himself in knots over Brexit

The latest Brexit talks raise the issue of Irish nationalism – which is especially divisive within Westminster, and above all within Labour.

By Helen Thompson

The after-effects of Brexit and the bitter political conflicts that preceded it are still coursing through UK politics. But MPs at Westminster seem no longer to want to talk about Brexit, as if the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU have been formally constitutionalised.

The Northern Ireland protocol is the exception. The protocol means that goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain must be checked for compliance with EU law. Resenting this legal friction to internal UK trade, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to withdraw his party from Stormont if the protocol is not changed to protect Northern Ireland’s position in the UK single market.

Boris Johnson is similarly unhappy with the current arrangement. For him, the protocol is illegitimate because it is the upshot of his weak negotiating position after parliament legislated against a no-deal Brexit in the summer of 2019. Even the EU Commission has recognised that the way the protocol is implemented should change. Whether new discussions between London and Brussels can find enough common ground to reboot the protocol and stabilise the Good Friday Agreement remains uncertain. The fear that Johnson will invoke Article 16 – which allows either the UK or the EU to take safeguarding measures (in the case of the UK, this might involve suspending checks on goods) – hangs over the proceedings. If he does, the whole post-Brexit trade relationship between Britain and the EU could unravel.

Brexit has permanently reintroduced Northern Ireland into Westminster politics. After the 2016 referendum, the future of the province left both the May and Johnson governments trying to enact Brexit while at the mercy of decisions made in Dublin. Now, the risk is that changes to the protocol will deepen nationalist pressure for Irish unification. There is little obvious desire in Dublin to see unification happen. But the issue of Irish nationalism will be especially divisive in Westminster – and above all within Labour.

By contrast, Brexit has always been a perverse friend to the Anglo-Scottish union, ending the fragile practical basis for Scottish secession by creating the need for an economic border if an independent Scotland were to join the EU. Yet Brexit has nevertheless brought significant constitutional change to the Anglo-Scottish union, the long-term consequences of which are still unknown. To appease Scottish nationalists, the House of Commons terminated English votes for English laws in July this year. If Labour has any chance of forming a government, the “English Question” will be central to the next general election.

[see also: Brexit isn’t done – and Boris Johnson can’t answer the Irish Question]

Labour’s ongoing Brexit problems mean this chance is presently weak. Keir Starmer’s leadership is a product of his support for a second referendum. This makes Brexit an unceasing electoral burden for his party. The tolerance of Red Wall swing voters for Johnson’s inattentive gung-hoism in the face of multiple crises is higher than it would have been had Labour not demanded another Brexit vote. Aware of the damage his own referendum agenda caused, Starmer is now eschewing any policy that could be seen as opposing Brexit. Claiming that Johnson’s “dishonesty” is risking the Good Friday Agreement, he is not willing to defend the Northern Ireland protocol itself: in June, he said that “having checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not the way forward”.

Nor will Starmer advocate for freedom of movement with the EU. The shocks of Brexit and the pandemic mean the government is making a virtue of declining numbers of EU workers coming to Britain. As Johnson told the Tory party conference at the start of October, the solution must be a higher-wage economy, even if this entails short-term supply chain difficulties. Starmer argues that the government’s talk of higher wages sounds offensively hollow to those who have been subject to the one-year public sector wage freeze. But Starmer cannot allow Labour to appear the party of cheap foreign labour, especially when it would align it with the pro-business Tories who fear upending the old UK growth model.

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For Labour to become the party of a return to the single market would also presuppose that UK-French relations can be repaired any time soon. Instead, the short- and long-term ramifications of Brexit continue to worsen them, whether disputes related to French fishing claims in the Channel, or Britain’s alignment with the US against China’s ascendancy.

These UK-French tensions have the potential to spread into the most vexed issue now facing governments across the world: energy. Inside the EU, the UK was part of the single electricity market. Now, British imports of electricity from France, the Netherlands and Belgium are not governed by the non-discrimination rules of EU law. President Emmanuel Macron has already threatened to use his country’s electricity exports as a weapon in France’s various disputes with London.

There is no appetite in the EU for such a confrontation with the UK. But Johnson and any successor will struggle to settle a new cooperative energy and climate relationship with the EU when the politics of how to realise the green energy transition are so contested both in London and Brussels. Whatever the intentions at Westminster, the disruption of Brexit still has far to run.

[see also: “Fighting culture wars won’t pay the bills”: Reform UK’s Richard Tice on life after Nigel Farage]

This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future