Brexit Returns to Spotlight Amid UK election Buzz, Starmer’s EU Visit, and EU Expansion Plans

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As the UK prepares for a likely general election next year, there appears to be a resurgence of Brexit in the national political discourse. However, the sentiment isn’t mirrored in Brussels. Leader of the Opposition and Labour head, Keir Starmer, drummed up significant attention recently by suggesting he would negotiate a “much better” deal with the European Union should he secure the prime ministerial seat. Following these remarks, he jetted off for high-profile engagements in the Hague and Paris, where he had a brief interaction with the French President, Emmanuel Macron.

Tuesday saw the publication of an EU reform paper, prompted by the French and German governments. Among its content were speculations about the UK possibly becoming an “associate member” of the EU by contributing financially in return for bolstering economic ties. This prompted a renewed debate among MPs and varying interpretations from the media about the implications of Brexit and EU associate membership.

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Brewing suspicion was promptly addressed by the German Ambassador to the UK, Miguel Berger, who clarified the document was aimed at assessing potential EU enlargement and reform, rather than EU-UK relations.

The developed nations have assured that this paper has no connection to Mr. Starmer’s visit and its primary concern lies in strategizing the allegiance of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and western Balkan nations by year-end. The document’s purpose is to plan the expansion of the EU and consider its impact on the present EU beneficiaries, principally considering forthcoming members such as Ukraine, who would likely absorb a large share of the EU’s subsidies.

The paper does, however, briefly touch upon the UK. President Macron, among others, is eager to foster stronger ties with Britain, especially given the unpredictable political climates in China and Russia, and the possibility of another Trump presidency in the US. While the two major parties in the UK have stated their refusal to rejoin the EU, there is a welcoming attitude towards the methodical approach of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Mr. Starmer’s ambition to enhance bilateral relations.

Mr. Starmer’s suggestion of revisiting the Brexit deal has been met with raised eyebrows across Europe, with little inclination for reopening old wounds. Notwithstanding, EU-UK relations have seen an improvement since the troubled times of the Brexit negotiations, in part due to France and the UK’s collaboration within key international platforms such as NATO, the G7, G20, and others.

The Franco-German paper reintroduces the concept of a “multi-speed” or multi-layered Europe, previously considered and rejected in Brussels. The models suggest three circles of relationships within the EU: member states desiring extra power-sharing, other EU member states, and associate membership countries that opt for economic ties without political bonds. The final relationship is the one currently maintained between the UK and EU.

Manifestly, the academic paper has not been sanctioned by the French or German governments, and EU member states have given it a mixed reception. However, some of its suggestions are anticipated to feature in discussions at a future EU leaders’ summit later this year. It remains to be seen how these developments eventually affect the political climate in the UK and the EU.