Voices: Puzzled, bored, overly negative: I read the room at Keir Starmer’s ‘Make Brexit Work’ speech

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Ambassadors from several European countries including Germany and Italy listened in puzzlement to Starmer (Getty Images)
Ambassadors from several European countries including Germany and Italy listened in puzzlement to Starmer (Getty Images)

What is it with three-word slogans about Europe? Boris Johnson tried “Get Brexit Done”. Now Sir Keir Starmer has come up with “Make Brexit Work”. He first tried out the slogan at the CBI last November. It failed to catch fire then. Now, he has relaunched it at the Irish Embassy for the 24th anniversary of thinktank the Centre for European Reform.

The CER is the best of the new European policy thinktanks set up towards the end of the last century as Britain appeared fully to engage with Europe following the lost years of John Major’s early Tory hostility to the EU after the Maastricht Treaty.

But in European capitals, no-one in politics, diplomacy or journalism has any interest in what anyone in London thinks or says on Europe. Britain is back where it was in the 1950s and 1960s, as Conservative and Labour politicians ignored developments that allowed Europe to put a century of war in the file marked “History – Do Not Reopen” and showed how market dynamics could move ahead in parallel with social investment, balanced regional development and a role for workers and civil society.

Ambassadors from several European countries including Germany and Italy listened in puzzlement to Starmer last night. He had nothing positive to say about Britain’s neighbours and the achievements of the EU in lifting the standard of living, for example in Ireland – which used EU membership to overcome the legacy of being a poor ex-colony of British rule and exploitation to be the modern self-confident nation it is today.

Instead, Starmer reverted to earlier Labour days when Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin refused to join in the initial construction of Europe in 1950. Like Hugh Gaitkell and James Callaghan or Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer continues the tradition of Labour leaders for whom European partnership is a problem not a solution to Britain’s ills.

Unmentioned in his speech was the UK 4 per cent drop in GDP or the 30 per cent of small business who traded with Europe giving up after Johnson’s red tape on exporting. Nor did he talk about the pound losing value so fast thank to Brexit it may soon join the Euro in value. Or, private and public sector managers unable to recruit necessary workers to pick fruit, work in care homes or build homes.

Every top economist including the Eurosceptic Centre for Business and Economic Research says Brexit is hurting the economy badly . The famous election slogan, “It’s the economy stupid” is ignored as the two main parties insist Brexit cannot be criticised. To be sure, no one can advocate a new referendum as it would be lost.

In Britain, the CBI and Chambers of commerce – along with the City – won’t challenge Brexit. Starmer proposed some tinkering at the edges pro-Europeans can welcome. He suggested changing rules for business executives, professionals, and young musicians and artists to travel freely to work in Europe.

He said freedom of movement would never come back – except Starmer then advocated freedom of movement for the categories he favours. Why not older citizens, students, or scientists?

There has been a big sea change in newspaper and most TV (not yet BBC) comments and coverage on Brexit which is now being presented very negatively. This is beginning to be reflected in polls. According to Ipsos, majorities exist now saying Brexit is bad for the UK and has made their lives worse, with small majorities supportive of undoing Brexit if a mechanism could be found that avoided a new plebiscite. Labour may be behind the curve of public and business opinion.

The SNP and Greens have already accused Starmer and Labour of being in the same place on Europe as Boris Johnson and the Tories. Will the half of the nation that rejected Brexit vote for a Labour Party which says it cannot be questioned?

Starmer made much of Labour undoing the Northern Ireland Protocol. But the US will force Johnson to lower the heat on that issue. The remarkable joint German-Irish statement accusing Johnson of breaking international law as he panders to the DUP Europhobes shows how Johnson is uniting, G7 and Nato as well as Paris and Berlin against his manoeuvres which threaten peace in Ireland.

Starmer also suggested Labour would adopt a similar regime for phytosanitary and animal product checks to that which exists between the EU, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. Farmers will welcome this, but it isn’t going to win any seats for Labour. It means obeying rules set in Brussels, but having no say in shaping them.

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Rejoining freedom of movement for musicians is fine but has to work both ways and the EU will not offer a derogation for partial freedom of movemement for certain categories of UK citizens without equal full reciprocity for EU citizens.

Starmer’s speech is to be welcomed but there is a great deal more work to be done. One toe in the water does not a policy make.

Far from drawing a line under Brexit, Starmer’s speech met with a riposte from Stella Creasy MP, chair of the fast growing Labour Movement for Europe, which is increasing membership and nominating pro-European Labour candidates for seats at the next election. “We urge Keir to make sure nothing is off the table as a solution in the fight to tackle the cost of living crisis and protect jobs, trade and security,” she said.

Creasy – like most in Labour – doesn’t believe Brexit can be made to work. If Rejoin or a new plebiscite are off the table, the idea Labour now has a policy on Europe that will “Make Brexit Work” is not realistic. Labour still has to answer its European question.

Denis MacShane is the former Labour Minister for Europe

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