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05 December 2022

FT's Duff: Keir Starmer must plot a bold route back to Europe for Britain

By showing ingenuity, the EU can turn a truculent neighbour into a useful security partner. 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...

more at FT

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