The Chinese say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” and Rishi Sunak has made a significant practical and psychological step forward with the Windsor framework on Northern Ireland; and – to coin another Chinese cliché – by facing down the ‘paper tigers’ of the ERG.
It must also be acknowledged that the EU in the person of Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, made a significant gesture of rapprochement by coming to London to seal the deal, rather than asking Sunak to go to Brussels as a supplicant, which would have enraged the easily enraged diehard supporters of the once vaunted “oven ready deal”.
The deal and the EU’s accommodating manner have done much to dispel the notion that it is EU ‘intransigence’ that has been causing the aggravation. In fact, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, referring to Brexit, has said on the record: “I’m still sad about the decision of the British people that they left the European Union. But it is their decision and they took it.”
Key obstacles to progress removed
The key word from the mood music which accompanied the Windsor framework was “trust”. The EU simply didn’t trust a UK under the leadership of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to negotiate in good faith.
Last October I had a meeting with Mikuláš Bek the Czech minister for European affairs, who described Brexit as a “tragedy” but when asked what could be done to improve matters, he indicated his concern about Johnson’s threat to take unilateral action on the Northern Ireland protocol.
So what does Starmer do now? He had already given Sunak a blank cheque saying Labour would support a deal. Does he now pledge to make Brexit “even better?” and if so, how?
The country, according to the polls, is moving towards some kind of accommodation with the EU. Indeed, with the continued slump in manufacturing, the empty supermarket shelves, the lack of labour in the services sector, it is clear that any improvement of our economy must involve a better trading relationship with the world’s largest single market.
We cannot pull back from teetering on the edge of recession based on trade deals with the minor partners like Australia and New Zealand – both deals, incidentally, massively to the advantage of those countries, as former Kiwi PM Jacinda Ardern confessed almost apologetically.
Nor can the fanciful membership of an Asia/Pacific alliance be of any practical use, even taking into account Truss’ risible Japan deal, there’s a limit to how much British cheese the Japanese can eat. How could a potential Asia/Pacific market, whose nearest point is over 6,000 miles away, compensate for the reduction of trade with a market of 500mn just a ferry ride away?
Horizon: the first olive branch?
The EU has now offered UK membership of the Horizon science exchange programme as a reward for the eventual ratification of the Windsor framework. An offer immediately welcomed by a grateful scientific community.
There are there similar small but significant steps to be contemplated. For instance, we could rejoin the EU’s Erasmus programme. Erasmus has funded student and staff exchanges which have greatly benefited this country and enthused many youngsters with an experience of study abroad; indeed the Erasmus programme was largely shaped by this country.
The EU offered Britain continued membership but was churlishly spurned by a spiteful Johnson. Its replacement for international exchanges, the Turing programme, is far less generous and the uptake disappointing.
Labour needs policies not simple slogans
Starmer needs a European policy, not a Brexit slogan. The Conservatives will have to make further approaches to the EU in order to revive the flagging economy, recruit migrant workers to pick our turnips and fill our shelves with salad. Labour cannot simply tag along giving Sunak a blank cheque for the next – inevitable – small steps of re-engagement. It is time to be bold, not simply react to but respond to the dawning awareness that Brexit has failed to deliver its always mendacious promises.
I suggest Labour adopts a more constructive slogan: “Extend the Windsor framework to the whole of the UK.”
Sunak – without irony it seems – trumpets the golden chance for Northern Ireland to belong to two internal markets, the UK and EU. Perhaps he needs reminding that’s what the whole UK had before Brexit.
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