As we approach the seventh anniversary of Britain’s fateful vote, on 23 June 2016, to leave the European Union, the state of UK-EU relations is superficially encouraging and structurally depressing.
Britain is like a sailing boat faffing around in the middle of the Channel. Most of its passengers want it to steer closer to the continental coast and even the captain seems willing to make some modest adjustments to his course. But strong winds and currents are pushing the boat further away from the continent. It will require a much more decisive change of course from a new captain, after a different crew comes onboard next year, for the forces of convergence to prevail over those of divergence.
In YouGov’s most recent regular poll, taken last month, 56 per cent of those asked said Britain was wrong to leave the EU against 31 per cent who said it was right; 62 per cent said Brexit has been “more of a failure” against just 9 per cent for “more of a success”. In a poll by Opinium, which offered four options for the future relationship, 36 per cent of British respondents chose “we should rejoin the EU” and another 25 per cent “we should remain outside the EU but negotiate a closer relationship with them than we have now.”
The politics lag behind the public. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, can see the pragmatic case for better economic relations with the United Kingdom’s biggest single market, but he’s also a more genuine Brexiter than his disgraced predecessor Boris Johnson ever was. Sunak’s world is Silicon Valley at one end, dynamic Indo-Pacific capitalism at the other. He is even hesitating about paying the bill for Britain to rejoin the Horizon programme of scientific cooperation, despite an almost unanimous chorus of scientists from both sides of the Channel in favour of doing so. Given the continued strength of the Brexiters in his party, and the intimidating power of the Eurosceptic press, only small incremental improvements can be expected on his watch.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, is relentlessly focused on winning next year’s general election. He believes this requires winning back voters in “red wall” seats who felt passionately about Brexit and, therefore, switched to the Conservatives in Johnson’s 2019 “get Brexit done” election. (In her book “Beyond the Red Wall”, the public opinion researcher Deborah Mattinson, who advises Starmer, records one such voter saying that when he heard the referendum result in 2016, he felt “as if England had won the World Cup”.)
Starmer recently had an article in the right-wing, fiercely Eurosceptic Daily Express in which he roundly asserted that “Britain’s future is outside the EU. Not in the single market, not in the customs union, not with a return to freedom of movement. Those arguments are in the past, where they belong.” He went on to say that “the paper-thin Tory deal has stifled Britain’s potential and hugely weighted trade terms towards the EU. Every day it isn’t built upon, our European friends and competitors aren’t just eating our lunch – they’re nicking our dinner money as well.”
On a close reading, this article was actually making the case for a new deal with the EU, but it was also playing the old New Labour game of appeasing the Eurosceptic tabloids – and thus giving hostages to fortune. (Shortly before the May 1997 election, Tony Blair got a commentary placed in the Sun saying he would “slay the Euro-dragon”.) The Express savaged its own guest author, gleefully quoting a Conservative MP who said “trusting Sir Keir with Brexit is like trusting Dracula at a blood bank.”
If Labour wins the next election, with or without the need for some kind of parliamentary support from the Liberal Democrats or Scottish National Party, the new government will undoubtedly seek a better deal with the EU. Shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, indicated as much a speech to business leaders this week. It’s not implausible to think that by the tenth anniversary of the referendum vote, in June 2026, the review of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement, which is scheduled for 2025, might have opened the door to a closer economic relationship.
This might include significant elements of involvement in the single market and customs union, with corresponding regulatory alignment. It’s hard to see how Labour can even remotely hope to achieve its hugely ambitious target of “securing the highest sustained growth in the G7” without reducing the post-Brexit friction with the country’s largest market.
There’s an interesting connection here with the war in Ukraine. The debate about Ukraine’s future relationship with the EU is now focused on incremental, progressive integration, in areas such as energy, environment, transport, and the single market. If Ukraine can have progressive integration, can’t the UK have some progressive reintegration?
Yet there remains the underlying dynamic of cross-Channel divergence. With every passing month, the UK and the EU are visibly drifting apart. Previously strong cultural, commercial, artistic, scientific, and political ties are weakening. A British university vice-chancellor tells me that his intake of EU students has fallen by 90 per cent. Britain actually has more immigration overall than before the Brexit vote, but less from the EU.
I have spent time recently in Ireland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden. In all these north European countries, which once looked on the British as special partners and friends inside the EU, Britain is now barely mentioned, except as the object of pity, ridicule, and contempt. The grimy farce around Johnson’s resignation honours list and his disgracefully Trumpian departure from the House of Commons have only reinforced those sentiments. These countries have forged new partnerships, as people do after they separate. They have moved on.
So has the EU itself. In response to the covid crisis, and above all to the war in Ukraine, Europe’s core political community is experiencing a period of rather dynamic integration in areas of vital interest to Britain: security policy and defence procurement; digital policy and the regulation of AI; large-scale support for industry to make the green transition, competing with US ‘Bidenomics’ on the one hand and Chinese industrial policy on the other.
Britain is not standing still either. Both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition are developing their own variants of those policies, which may diverge from and compete with the EU’s. In several key areas, such as tech, AI, creative industries, and financial services, Britain still has strengths that make it a serious competitor.
It will take a lot of bold strategy from a new British government, and goodwill from both sides, to counter these deeper currents of divergence.
This article was first published in the Guardian on 22 June.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.