On everything from Net Zero to wokery and immigration, Starmer will be way out of step with his beloved EU, writes ANDREW NEIL

On everything from Net Zero to wokery and immigration, Starmer will be way out of step with his beloved EU, writes ANDREW NEIL

The surge of the populist Right in Sunday’s elections to the European Parliament means it must have dawned on even Keir Starmer and his Europhile Labour Party that the EU we voted to leave in 2016 is very different from the one he wants to cosy up to in 2024.

The traditional, mainstream centre-Right/centre-Left consensus which dominated the European Union eight years ago — and into which Starmer saw his reformed Labour Party fitting perfectly — is no more.

Some of Europe’s chancelleries are now hostile territory for the British Labour Party. Others are unfriendly or, at the very least, unpredictable.

As Labour’s Harriet Harman, Mother of the House of Commons until she stepped down from running again when the election was called, said to me yesterday, Starmer will have to be ‘very pragmatic’ now when it comes to dealing with Europe. And that won’t please a large chunk of Labour activists (many of them soon to be new MPs) who can’t wait for Britain to rejoin the EU.

The tide has turned against Labour’s vision of a social democratic Europe with which it can comfortably do business. It is likely to be more of a headache for a Starmer government than the safe harbour into which it would like eventually to dock.

The nationalist, populist Right came top in France, Italy and Austria, tied for first place in the Netherlands and came second in Germany and Romania. Not quite a clean sweep — but nevertheless an impressive advance against the more established parties.

Teenage girls, draped in German flags, at an election campaign rally of the Right-wing party Alternative for Germany

In Germany, the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) were trounced, coming a poor third behind the hard-Right AfD, in second place.

This matters because the SPD has always been Labour’s most significant continental ally on the centre-Left. It even convinced Labour to look more kindly on Europe during its rabidly Eurosceptic days.

A Starmer government will find the SPD a much-diminished friend. Its leader, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is now the walking wounded, presiding over a coalition government whose constituent parts are at war. What was left of its authority has been shot to smithereens by the election results, in which the SPD’s Green partners did even worse than Scholz’s party.

Labour’s other important European soulmates, the French Socialists, didn’t fare much better. True, they showed some signs of recovery after a long spell in the doldrums — but they still managed only third place, just behind President Macron’s centrist party but with fewer than half the votes of Marine Le Pen’s Right-wing National Rally.

Now that Macron has called a snap election for the French parliament — an unnecessary move which could prove to be a catastrophe of Rishi Sunak proportions — Labour’s purchase with the French political elite could be even further reduced if National Rally forms the next French government in enforced ‘cohabitation’ with Macron.

I look forward to David Lammy, on course to be Starmer’s foreign secretary, charming his way into the good books of Marine Le Pen and a hard-Right National Rally foreign minister, the way he’s now trying to curry favour with Donald Trump’s foreign policy team after smearing Trump as a ‘Nazi’.

God knows what he’s said about Le Pen and the NR. But there’s still something of the student politician about Lammy, so it can’t be good. If Trump carries the day across the Atlantic, for a foreign secretary, Lammy could be distinctly short of foreign friends.

There’s every chance the French elections will leave Macron even more of a busted flush. So the walking wounded in Berlin, and a busted flush in Paris. The Franco-German alliance has always been the driving force behind the EU but it would have all the power of a donkey with a limp.

That’s bad news for Starmer. If he’s to worm Britain back into the European Union’s good books, even if it doesn’t mean immediate re-entry as a member, he needs a powerful Franco-German motor, not a couple of clunkers like Macron and Scholz.

Then there are Labour’s policies. Starmer has seen them as compliant with the Brussels’ consensus on everything from his party’s zeal for net zero and its soft positions on immigration and free movement, to its enthusiasm for all manner of wokery. That, he hoped, would oil the wheels of a British-EU reconciliation.

But these are precisely the policies that so many Europeans rejected in Sunday’s elections. Support for net zero is waning fast, demands for a tougher approach to immigration grow ever louder, and resistance to further wokery is on the march.

So, far from being at the heart of the European policy consensus, a Labour Britain under Starmer would be something of an outlier.

The tide has turned against Labour¿s vision of a social democratic Europe with which Sir Keir Starmer can comfortably do business

The populist surge in Europe is a revolt against the kind of policies that Labour so enthusiastically espouse, writes Andrew Neil

This is a particular nightmare for Ed Miliband, who as the climate change minister in a Starmer cabinet can’t wait to lumber us with all manner of expensive ‘green stuff’ to fulfil his net zero ambitions.

But he will be doing so as much of the rest of Europe is going fast in the opposite direction. British voters, struggling to meet the cost of Miliband’s obsessions, will quickly notice the difference.

Labour, though, can take comfort from the fact that the European political mainstream was not destroyed in the elections. The traditional centre-Right will still be the largest block in the European Parliament, the centre-Left the second biggest — but Labour needs to look carefully at why.

The centre-Right has had to tilt further to the right to survive the populist onslaught. Take the German Christian Democrats, once the epitome of centrist politics under Angela Merkel, who was Chancellor for 16 years and is now widely discredited.

They came first in Germany’s European vote but they did so by reneging on much of their previous enthusiasm for net zero and moving to a markedly tougher stance on immigration.

Nothing that is happening in Europe will stop Labour from having its day in the sun on July 4, perhaps famously so.

But Europe is a warning sign nevertheless. The populist surge is a revolt against the kind of policies that Labour so enthusiastically espouses. Somewhere down the road — perhaps one or two or three years in, when the full flush of an historic victory has long dissipated — the same forces which are now undermining the European mainstream could easily turn on Labour.

Keir Starmer poses with Georgia Gould, head of Camden Council, and a EU flag at a rally against Brexit in 2019

Starmer with then party leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 after a meeting in Brussels

That is all the more likely if Britain has its own realignment of the Right. Its lethal danger for Labour was illustrated by the 2019 election, in which a combination of Brexit (a populist revolt), Jeremy Corbyn (hated by many working-class Labour voters) and Boris Johnson (who could reach the parts most politicians could not) reconfigured the Right and won a landslide victory.

The irony is that Johnson, a crucial architect of that realignment, then went on to blow it, with the consequences which will be all too obvious on July 4.

But maybe Britain was just a bit ahead of its time — and politics is full of second chances.

Nigel Farage sees that. He decided belatedly to become a player in this election because he concluded the Tories would do so badly that, post-election, they would be vulnerable to a hostile takeover by his Reform UKor a merger with the Tories which would soon turn into a takeover.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman is already saying there’s not much difference between Reform and the Conservatives and that they should welcome Farage to the fold.

That will have traditional Home Counties Tories choking on their kedgeree. But there might be too few of them left to call the shots.

A realignment of the Right that produced a more populist, nativist party would undoubtedly have its more unsavoury elements. Some in the centre would be repelled, though many of them are probably no longer voting Tory anyway.

But it might also be the biggest threat to Labour down the road, which could be the catalyst that spurs it on.

The danger signs for Starmer and for Labour are already there, as even a cursory glance across the Channel confirms.


Andrew Neil

Leave a Reply