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How can Keir Starmer keep Britain safe? As the US withdraws, he must renew the UK’s role in Europe

Keir Starmer is reeling from England’s defeat in European football, but he will hope to be more successful in European politics. This week more than 45 leaders will gather under his leadership in Blenheim Palace for the fourth meeting of the European Political Community (EPC). The EPC summit is the brainchild of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who called for the format to demonstrate European unity after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Starmer will want to use the moment to show that Britain is back. But in the eyes of many participants it is the absence of the United States, rather than the presence of the United Kingdom, that will be most resonant. The last time many of these same leaders gathered was in Washington, DC to celebrate NATO’s 75th anniversary. But when they convene in Oxfordshire their biggest protector will not be with them. And many fear this will become the new normal.

Opinion polls see Donald Trump with a growing lead ahead of November’s election. He has promised to enforce a peace deal on Ukraine and to downgrade American participation in European security. His surrogates are promoting a vision of “dormant NATO” (code for a NATO with fewer American troops, a European general as supreme allied commander, and an American withdrawal from the alliance’s military command). What’s more, even if Joe Biden is re-elected, his officials are very focused on “responsibility sharing”, by which they mean shifting responsibility for European security into European hands.

It is vital that Starmer rises to the occasion with a big, historic offer to his European partners. In the run-up to the election he was more comfortable talking about what Labour wouldn’t do on Europe, but he now needs to talk about what Labour’s ambitions are.

He must go beyond statements about wanting to work with Europe. He should say that the UK is a European country and that – under his leadership – it will work to make Europe stronger and more united.

He should launch a collective discussion about the challenge of defending Europe with less US involvement. And he should put everything on the table – including exploring how Britain’s nuclear deterrent could contribute to collective European security. Britain cannot hope to fill the vacuum that would be left in European security by a US withdrawal. However, by working with Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris, the UK can provide reassurance to countries that live in Russia’s shadow and that feel exposed. Contingencies for different Trumpian scenarios can be quietly worked through and discussions started on how the UK can be part of a European response.

Starmer has the opportunity to declare that the UK will not simply be a non-EU ally in NATO (on a par with Canada, Turkey, and the US), and to seek a special relationship with the EU. He should go beyond joining the European Defence Agency and seek to establish British participation in most defence projects across the EU system (as is the case for Norway).

The prime minister should acknowledge the integration of the UK into the European defence and technological industrial base. This would make a change from the Conservative government’s outdated approach of being the main promoter of a transatlantic industrial scheme. This would also involve promoting deepened EU-NATO cooperation rather than focusing on defending NATO alone.

And in the 21st century, security is not just about missiles, planes, and tanks. Starmer should explain how the UK can help extend European power and security through co-operation on sanctions, technology controls, supply chains, critical raw materials, energy security, migration, and joint action against gangs and people traffickers, among other areas. Working together in these new security areas can help provide a fresh framework for thinking about the relationship that transcends the logic of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Starmer should encourage all his domestic ministers to meet with their counterparts in key European countries to establish a habit of pragmatic bilateral or minilateral cooperation in their areas, from safer streets and migration to a Horizon-style programme for military research.

If the messaging is done right, Britain might find that it awakens an appetite in European capitals for removing friction between the UK and the EU. Some capitals, such as Paris and Berlin, are consumed with domestic political travails, but many member states that are acutely concerned about their security could be natural allies for a reset of relations. In a fragmented Europe, the Nordic and Baltic countries and Poland could become the leaders of a friends of Britain coalition.

Starmer may find a domestic political opportunity as well as a foreign policy one in the quest for a European reset. The dividing line is now between pragmatic cooperation in the national interest and isolationist self-harm driven by ideology. Polling among leave voters shows that the vast majority are pragmatic about Europe – particularly if you respect red lines on freedom of movement. Even on sensitive issues such as youth mobility, the results are encouraging. Before the election, the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a poll with Datapraxis/Yougov which asked people for their opinion on “a new scheme that would allow 18- to 30-year-old British nationals to live, study or work in the EU for up to four years, in exchange for 18- to 30-year-old EU nationals being able to live, study or work in the UK for up to four years”. The results were striking: 63 per cent in favour, only 10 per cent against. Even among leave voters it was 48 per cent in favour and 19 per cent against.

If Starmer manages to reset the European agenda on security and gets early wins on cooperation such as rejoining Erasmus, sorting out passport queues, and reducing friction for exporters, he will show the benefits of practical cooperation. And he might also generate some deep enthusiasm in a Labour coalition that is very wide but thin.

The EPC summit in Blenheim is a chance to bury the psychodrama of the Brexit years and craft a new bond with our neighbours to keep Europe safe. Where better to do this than in Winston Churchill’s ancestral home? If Starmer rises to the occasion and is visionary, he can help his country to finally achieve a win in Europe.

This article was first published in the Guardian on 16 July 2024.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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