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14 September 2023

Labour’s position on Europe is slowly emerging

Keir Starmer’s plan to reduce small-boat crossings is getting obscured by debates about closeness to the EU.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer is at Europol in The Hague today to launch his plan to stop the boats. It has quickly become a debate about the EU. Plus ça change.

Labour’s migrant policy is being fought over in the national press. In a piece for the Sun and in an interview with the Times, Starmer has said Labour would target the criminal gangs behind people-smuggling and seek an EU-wide returns agreement for asylum seekers. Meanwhile, the Telegraph and the Mail have pilloried the Labour leader for agreeing to take a quota of undocumented migrants from the EU. The key question is whether Starmer, unlike the current government, which is also very keen to resolve the issue in case you hadn’t noticed, can actually stop the small boats crossing the Channel.

[See also: What’s behind Labour’s new Brexit position?]

Despite the fanfare, none of this is new: Yvette Cooper announced back in July last year that she wanted to rejoin an EU-returns agreement. Regardless of when it was announced, the policy is unlikely to work. While Europe’s system might be different, under the version the UK participated in as an EU member, returns numbered in the hundreds. Meanwhile, 46,000 people crossed the Channel last year. The key point is to resource the Home Office with the decision-makers needed to cut the asylum backlog – something both Labour and the government have gestured towards.

That’s what you will find in the Times and the Sun. But I think the Telegraph and the Mail make the more interesting point – at least tangentially.

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Starmer will be welcomed by Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace next week. This, combined with his Hague trip today, is a preview of how the leader will perform on the international stage if he becomes prime minister. And Starmer would spend a lot of time visiting European capitals: Labour’s Europe policy is essentially to get as close as possible to the EU without joining the single market or customs union. The success of Labour’s relationship with Europe and the debate about how aligned Britain should be would likely dominate a Labour term in office. Starmer’s visit to Europol today is a glimpse of what that might look like.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

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[See also: The Starmer conundrum]

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