Wednesday, July 24, 2024

EU would not rush to reopen Brexit talks with Labour, say Brussels sources

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The EU will not rush to reopen Brexit negotiations with the UK even if Labour is swept to power next Thursday, senior sources in Brussels have indicated.

They say they will welcome a change of government but the deep scars left by the Conservatives during Brexit negotiations along with the new priorities caused by the war in Ukraine, and the rise of the far right weigh heavily on the minds of influential figures in Brussels.

“It’s not that people are thinking good things about the UK, it’s not that they are thinking bad things. They are not thinking about the UK at all,” said one senior source close to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

A second senior source warned that despite the warmth Labour can expect “there is no appetite for Brexit in European capitals.”

“The UK is simply not in people’s minds. We have two wars going on – reopening talks on Brexit would require a lot of political capital and absorb a lot of resources here in Brussels” he said.

The prospect of a Margaret Thatcher-style rebate row in France if Marine Le Pen gets a majority in the French election could also throw sand in protracted negotations over the long-term post 2027 EU budget, already complicated by the possible accession of Ukraine.

Senior sources in the Commission also indicated that the UK would have to come with a big offer in exchange for any concessions to strengthen relations with the otherwise occupied bloc.

“If we are asked to give the UK a gift, the question will be what do we get in exchange. People will be asking, is it worth the pain?” said a senior Brussels diplomat.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has already ruled out rejoining the customs union or the single market, saying it would bring “turmoil”, but he has said he wanted to improve relations on trade, research and development, defence and security, and education. Carbon pricing and a realignment of the highly expensive regulation of chemicals is also likely to be on the wishlist of an incoming Labour government.

It would also seek to reopen talks on a new veterinary agreement which could eliminate many of the checks on food and farm products exported to the EU, although one UK government insider warned this could involve “years of pain” and may not be as attractive to Brussels as London imagines.

Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s University and director of the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank, also sees a disconnect between what some Labour types believe and the reality of Europe in 2024.

“The first thing we have to wrap our heads around is that we are not a priority. They have got bigger fish to fry than any improvements on the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA). We have to offer them something that many European states are keen on.”

He told a car industry event last week it was a flawed assumption by many Labour supporters that the EU would be more favourable to Keir Starmer just because he was not Conservative.

The EU will be very hesitant about reopening the TCA partly because the it “was disproportionately good” for the EU but also because the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made it more “inward-looking and far more protectionist in nature”, he said, in a reference to a suite of policies designed to secure EU energy, food and critical raw materials in the wake of an outbreak of war.

On the other hand the changed political landscape of the EU which has seen the far right empowered may also, paradoxically, give a fillip to Labour, as the likes of Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen, if elected to power in France, may push policies “just to piss off Brussels” says Menon.

Paradoxically, if France’s EU membership and Macron’s status is weakened by electoral victory for Marine Le Pen, alignment with the UK under Labour could rocket in appeal to Berlin and other capitals not as keen as Macron to punish for Brexit.

Personnel change at the top of the European Commission may also give talks with the UK a fresh impetus. Maroš Šefčovič, who has been the main interlocutor on the UK relations since Brexit, has been endorsed for a second term by Slovakia’s president, Peter Pellegrini, but he is not expecting to remain in the same portfolio when the new college of commissioners is formed, possibly as late as October.

Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s Europe adviser, is also being tipped to return to Whitehall, possibly as cabinet secretary.

Brussels insiders say Erasmus is one low-hanging fruit that the UK could use to create disproportionate good will with the new Šefčovič.

“Re-entering Erasmus would be of huge political importance in the capitals. Leaving the programme was unfair and a punishment of young people by the Bullingdon Club people,” said a senior Commission source.

Opening talks on a youth mobility programme could also curry favour, even though an unexpected offer by Brussels was roundly rejected by Labour and Tories in April.

The background to the offer now suggests politics were at play giving Starmer ample room for manoeuvre.

Sources say the UK proposed a youth mobility programme with six countries including France but Brussels went into “complete panic” that some member states would break off and do unilateral deals, prompting von der Leyen to make the bombshell offer during the middle of a leaders’ summit in April.

Insiders say the proposed home fees for EU students in UK universities, which no UK government would finance, show how poorly thought through the Brussels document was but outside the highly charged election environment it should have been seen as a “starting point” and “olive branch”.

Diplomats also say the EU have been “keen” on a more formalised security and defence agreement and a discussion on aligning policies on carbon pricing schemes which includes taxing of greenhouse gas emissions generated in the production of imports and exports.

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