Keir Starmer is to meet Emmanuel Macron as he begins to prepare the ground for a potential renegotiation of the UK-EU trading agreement in 2025.
The Labour leader will meet the French president at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Tuesday on the latest leg of an international tour, which has taken in The Hague and Montreal.
Labour hopes to use the trip to position Starmer as a leader on the international stage, as well as to test the appetite for a broader trading arrangement should the party win the general election next year.
Many in UK and EU foreign policy circles warn that if Labour does win the election it is unlikely to find a receptive audience in European capitals for such a renegotiation unless the party is willing to offer significant concessions.
Joël Reland, a research associate at UK in a Changing Europe, said: “The EU is only interested in a very narrow technical exercise looking at how the TCA [trade and cooperating agreement] is being implemented. If the UK wants to change that it will have to offer quite strong incentives.”
The European political commentator, Wolfgang Münchau, wrote on Monday: “Sir Keir Starmer’s attempt to rewrite the relationship is based on a delusion of a similar kind, that it is possible to stay outside the single market and the customs union and get a better deal. This is a political lie.”
Starmer and his shadow ministers have begun to set out in detail which elements of the agreement they would like to change.
Speaking to the BBC on Monday evening, Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow trade secretary, said his party wanted to achieve greater cooperation on agricultural standards, crime and security. Labour also wants to make it easier for young people and artists to travel between the UK and EU, and to have each side recognise each other’s professional qualifications and kitemarks.
“We are looking at every single aspect in terms of our own national interest, that is what comes first,” he said. “Where it is in our national interest to look at these specific aspects of the agreement then that’s what we will do.”
On agricultural standards, Labour wants to sign a new veterinary agreement that would remove the need to check swathes of food and agricultural goods at port. To do so, however, could require the UK to sign up to EU standards on those goods, and in the words of one European official, “will take years and be a painful negotiation”.
A separate defence and security pact, which has been promoted by the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, is also likely to require substantial negotiations. Experts say the UK would at least have a strong hand to play in any such talks, given EU leaders are keen to gain access to British intelligence and military equipment.
David McAllister, a German MEP and chair of the foreign affairs committee at the European parliament, said: “There are a few things lacking here which should be fixed. For me, the most important one is simply that the TCA does not include a structured security and defence partnership.”
Other Labour goals are likely to prove simpler to agree, including a new deal for performing artists to travel to and from the continent. There have also been calls for British students to be allowed to re-enter the Erasmus scheme with Labour insiders suggesting an Australia-UK-style youth visa could be discussed further down the line.
Some in Labour fear the party has misunderstood the purpose of the planned review. Earlier this year, Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission, warned: “[The review] does not constitute a commitment to reopen the TCA or to renegotiate the supplementary agreements.”
Others say that even if agreement is struck in some or all of these areas it will not boost the British economy in any significant way, given Labour is committed to remaining outside the single market and customs union.
“The Labour party is also playing it very safe. It’s not looking to return to the single market, rejoin the customs union. It’s not even looking to set up a chapter on security and foreign policy,” said one senior official in Brussels.
Some Labour officials also worry that even by talking about these issues they are opening themselves up to attack from the Conservatives. “They could quite easily sow a nugget of doubt in people’s minds about our plans for Brexit,” said one.
Despite the doubts Starmer is pressing ahead with his European charm offensive, conscious that a broader renegotiation with Brussels may be a project for the longer term.
“I’ve got a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl,” the Labour leader told the Financial Times (paywall). “I’m not going to let them grow up in a world where all I’ve got to say to them about their future is, it’s going to be worse than it might otherwise have been.”
Source : The Guardian