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Why the EU should be watching closely as the UK prepares to head to the polls

Pro-EU supporter Peter Cook unfurls a Union and EU flag prior to a ceremony to celebrate British and EU friendship outside the European Parliament in Brussels.
Pro-EU supporter Peter Cook unfurls a Union and EU flag prior to a ceremony to celebrate British and EU friendship outside the European Parliament in Brussels. Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Analysts say that a likely Labour-led government could offer new-found stability to a recently tumultuous UK-EU relationship.

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It's dominated British politics for the best part of a decade - but Brexit has been something of a taboo on the campaign trail as the UK gears up for Thursday's general election.

"Both main parties have tried to discuss Brexit as little as possible," Joel Reland, Research Fellow at think tank UK in a Changing Europe, told Euronews. "Voters have been quite disappointed with what has been delivered (on Brexit) so Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak doesn't want to draw attention to that."

"And for Labour, Keir Starmer is trying to win back seats in the 'Red Wall', which voted to leave the EU in 2016," he added, referring to Labour's heartland seats in the traditionally working-class regions of the Midlands and northern England, which defected in mass to the Conservatives in the last election in 2019.

But with Labour now poised to enter government for the first time in 14 years - and its leader Keir Starmer vowing to re-open parts of the UK's post-Brexit deal - the vote could trigger a new chapter in EU-UK relations.

Starmer has ruled out re-joining the EU's single market for goods and services or the customs union, and will not reinstate the freedom of movement. He has also remained vague on which aspects of EU-UK cooperation he would re-negotiate, although his closest aides have suggested they could include chemical regulation, financial services, and linking up on the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS).

Experts say that if Starmer gets the keys to 10 Downing Street, he could face difficulties in re-opening the agreement in a way that is palatable to both Brussels and to his domestic electorate.

"When you dig down into the details of what they (Labour) want to do, it's by and large relatively small things and even some of those would probably be quite difficult to negotiate with the EU," Ian Bond, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform (CER), said.

By defining its red lines of not joining the single market or customs union, or allowing free movement, the party has "painted itself into a corner," Bond added. "They have limited their room for manoeuvre, and they've limited their ability to negotiate a better deal with the EU."

Brussels may also well seek to gain concessions from the UK in return for a revised agreement in niche areas. One concession could be the youth mobility agreement that the European Commission proposed back in April, which would restore young Brits and Europeans' ability to freely travel, work and study on both sides.

"The problem is that Labour's ruled a youth mobility deal out for the time being," Reland explained. "But I think if they want to get a deal with Brussels, they're probably going to have to be a bit more flexible."

'Fertile ground' for security and defence cooperation

The next British prime minister is set to encounter his European counterparts early after the vote, first during the NATO summit in Washington on July 9-11. The prime minister will then welcome around 40 European leaders - including the 27 EU heads of state and government - to Blenheim Palace on July 18 for a summit of the European Political Community.

The forum, considered the brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, is one of the few summits where the UK has direct access to all EU and its member states' leaders since its exit from the bloc.

One area in which both sides will want to forge closer ties is security and defence, with a potential defence pact on the table.

There provisions on security in the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement are slim. And with war raging on Europe's doorstep and the spectre of Donald Trump's return hanging over the White House, it makes strategic sense for both sides to support each other in bolstering Europe's defence capabilities.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, right, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Speaker's House in the Palace of Westminster, London, during his first visit to the UK
Labour leader Keir Starmer, right, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Speaker's House in the Palace of Westminster, London, during his first visit to the UKStefan Rousseau/WPA Rota

"All these questions about European security have become a lot sharper and a lot more worrying," Olivia O'Sullivan, Director of the UK in the world programme at Chatham House, told Euronews.

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"The UK may have had a difficult relationship with the EU in the intervening years, but it's one of the biggest European militaries, it consistently spends over 2% of GDP on defence as a NATO member, and it cooperates very closely with important groupings like the Baltic states and the Nordic states when it comes to defence," she added.

"So it's a part of the puzzle when it comes to European security."

The UK ballot coincides with the start of a new political mandate in the EU, in which plans to ramp up the EU's collective defence industries are likely to be one of the major strategic priorities.

The bloc has already taken important strides to boost its defence industrial capacities, and is expected to name a Commissioner to steer these efforts over the next five-year term.

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"A lot of the EU's recent initiatives and projects in this area have been focused on bolstering defence industrial production," O'Sullivan explained. "But many of those initiatives and projects don't include third countries. They're deliberately focused on EU member state industries. So it's going to be difficult to negotiate whether the UK can be part of them or whether the UK wants to be part of them."

There could be increased appetite from Brussels to rely on the UK as a partner on defence preparedness, particularly amid fears that Eurosceptic political forces historically sympathetic to Russia are marching into the political mainstream across the bloc.

The UK election is sandwiched in between two rounds of snap legislative elections in France, with the far-right National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen in pole position after winning over 33% of the vote during the first round on Sunday.

The far-right would have limited capacity to shape French foreign or defence policy, considered the domain of the President, even if they managed to form a government. Macron is likely to hold onto the presidency until 2027.

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But the increasing popularity of the National Rally, which wants to scale down French military support to Ukraine, has set alarm bells ringing in Brussels. It adds to a general sense of apprehension that Europe's hand will be weakened if Trump is re-elected US President in November.

The UK election is on the other hand bound to deliver a staunchly pro-Ukrainian government, with both the Conservatives and Labour committed to supporting Kyiv militarily.

"Having the British as closely associated as possible with what the rest of Europe is doing will be particularly important if we end up with a rather unpredictable and erratic Trump as president again in the US," Ian Bond said. "For Brussels, I think the watchword will be stability."

Video editor • Ines Trindade Pereira

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