The writer is a former Member of the European Parliament
The rest of Europe looks with amazement at the goings-on in Britain. Faced with a Brexit that has demonstrably failed, Rishi Sunak’s government seems hapless. But his putative successor, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, refuses to plot a bold way back to Europe, saying he wants to “make Brexit work”. Any radical reform of the UK’s relations with the EU is likely to be delayed until at least his second term — a position that would be both tardy and presumptuous.
Instead, Starmer should promise to forge an immediate customs union with the EU (not, note, to rejoin the EU customs union). The commission has already made useful preparations to modernise the EU’s customs association with Turkey, another troubled neighbour with a large economy. So long as all goods are included in its scope, and an accompanying agreement is struck on value added tax and on plant and animal health, the new customs union will eliminate practically all Brexit border checks — bringing instant relief to Northern Ireland. The UK will align with key aspects of EU trade policy for goods, including tariffs, allowing Starmer to ditch most of the Tories’ oversold free trade triumphs.
The next step would be to negotiate mutual access between the internal markets of the UK and EU, grounded in a new treaty aimed at boosting the flow and exchange of goods, capital, services and workers. As the UK reintegrates with the EU regulatory regime, it will be guaranteed participation in spending programmes (notably the Horizon science scheme). It will participate in the numerous agencies that manage and monitor EU policy — to the relief of overstretched domestic regulatory bodies. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement will be replaced by fresh deals on competition, state aid and taxation policy and the elimination of non-tariff barriers. The EU’s association agreement with Ukraine provides a model for a comprehensive free trade area pitched at widening dynamic alignment — including, unlike Switzerland, viable dispute procedures.
In a radical improvement on any of the EU’s current agreements with its neighbours, however, Britain should require voting rights in the European Council — without a veto — on all relevant single market legislation. This would include a vote on the revision of current laws, such as one on chemicals or Solvency II for insurance, as well as the extension of European integration into new fields such as climate policy and digital services. British ministers should participate in council negotiations on national laws as well as the opening and closing of trade agreements with third countries. The UK will contribute to the EU budget consistent with its rights and obligations but it will not subscribe to the EU’s common agriculture, fishery or monetary policies.
Such unprecedented political engagement by the UK will give birth to a new constitutional category of EU affiliate state. This will require EU treaty change, which in the wake of Brexit and Ukraine is in any case overdue. There is no post-Brexit solution that does not entail radical reform on the side of the EU as well as a bold change of gear in Britain. Only a more federal union can be a capable leader of the wider European neighbourhood.
Anglophobes will choke at this (as will Brexiteers). But Britain’s geographic proximity, cultural ties, membership legacy, economic and security clout make it a special case. Both sides need a privileged partnership. By showing ingenuity, the EU can turn a potentially troublesome neighbour into a useful security partner. It can extend its own normative power and burnish its democratic credentials. Where UK affiliation leads, others, such as Norway and even Ukraine, seeking to upgrade their relationship with Brussels, may follow. EU orthodoxy tries to outlaw “cherry-picking” but today all Europe requires a confident, democratic approach to flexible differentiated integration.