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  1. Politics
  2. Labour
25 January 2024

Labour must improve relations with Europe

A second Trump presidency could make a closer defence relationship with the EU essential.

By Freddie Hayward

Emily Thornberry’s interview with Sky News last night was revealing. It threw Labour’s problems into sharp contrast.

It started with Trump. The presenter Sophy Ridge asked the shadow attorney general whether she still agreed with her previous comments that he was a “sexual predator”, a “racist” and a “bully”. She did. The former president’s victory in New Hampshire this week means his becoming the Republican nominee is all but guaranteed. National polls put him on an equal standing with Joe Biden. A Trump victory would mean Labour’s first government in 14 years could be overshadowed by a US president threatening to withhold American support for the defence of Europe – as he reportedly told the EU in 2020 when he was still in office.

While Thornberry said Labour would work with whoever was elected, some in the party recognise that it would need to quickly rebuild a relationship with the Europeans. It was noticeable that the self-proclaimed Atlanticist David Lammy, who would be Labour’s foreign secretary, said at the weekend: “With war on our continent, [the Europeans] are our closest allies and friends.” He did not mention the US (albeit a Labour source said this speech didn’t aim to address everything).

Keir Starmer sees the 2025 review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU as an opportunity to restructure the relationship by, for instance, signing a veterinary agreement. The EU sounds less keen. The European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič has said the review “does not constitute a commitment to reopen the TCA”.

[See also: Why Labour is still preparing for a May general election]

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With war raging in Ukraine, rebuilding a relationship around defence could be the key to developing those links. Starmer has invested time befriending Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party. In 2022, he said Labour would pursue a defence pact with Germany based on the 2010 Lancaster House agreement with France, which I’m told means looking to increase cooperation in training, procurement and industrial strategy. One source noted the opportunity that higher defence spending could present the British arms industry. The party is aiming to agree this within its first six months in office. “It will send a big signal to the rest of the EU,” a source said.

The intent is clear then. But what about the means? Let’s go back to that Sky interview. When asked about calls from Britain’s top brass this week for more soldiers, Thornberry could only commit to “getting more value for [the] money that is spent”, not more spending itself.

The growing political consensus is that Britain needs to increase defence investment. The post-Cold War peace dividend is over. Threats from belligerent states are increasing. At the same time, Labour is flirting with tax cuts while talking up its commitment to fiscal conservatism. A closer relationship with Europe built on defence, made more urgent by an isolationist Trump presidency, would require Labour to re-equip and rebuild Britain’s depleted and weak armed forces.

The question of whether Labour will spend £28bn on the green prosperity plan is dominating debates over the party’s spending plans. But it could be defence that causes the largest headache for a Labour Treasury.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Labour in power]

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