On page 218 and 219 of the UK-EU Trade Deal (full PDF here) is the following paragraph (emphasis is mine):
In order to ensure an appropriate balance between the commitments made by the Parties in this Agreement on a more durable basis, either Party may request, no sooner than four years after the entry into force of this Agreement, a review of the operation of Heading One [Trade] of this Agreement. The Parties may agree that other Headings of this Agreement may be added to the review.
Essentially a review clause. Either party can ask for the review.
And when is 4 years from now? Right after the next UK General Election that would have to happen latest by mid-December 2024.
But isn’t the EU question settled I hear you say?
Perhaps mainstream factions in the Tory and Labour Parties want it to be settled – to stop the UK banging on about Europe – but there will be voices on both sides who want to keep the question alive. The Brexit hardliners will have seen the ongoing constraints in the Trade Deal between now and 2024, and will be braying for further separation – either from within the Tory Party, or through some new Faragist formation to the right of the Tories.
But the problem is going to be more pressing for Labour. The party has essentially spent the last 4 years hoping the EU question would go away, and might likely hope for the same in the coming four years (the erroneous decision to vote for the Deal on 30th December in the Commons points in that direction). But that would be a crushing error.
There are going to be at least two parties in the running in England* who not only do not want the EU question to go away, but see it as their route to greater political relevance – the Lib Dems and the Greens. And they will use the prospect of the 2024 review as their way to frame the discussion at the next General Election.
As we saw all too well at the 2019 General Election, these parties seldom did well enough to win seats, but split the progressive or pro-EU vote enough to allow the Tories to win more than should have been the case. In parts of northern England, Lib Dems denied Labour victories, while in outer suburban London the opposite was the case – the presence of Labour meant seats Lib Dems could have won went Tory.
That same sort of problem is going to come back with a vengeance in 2024. The Lib Dem pitch will be “if you thought Brexit was a bad idea, vote for us”, and what is Labour’s response?
I see two ways forward – and neither of them is “we don’t want to talk about Europe”.
One option would be to work out a post-Brexit centre left internationalist vision for the UK’s role in the world, and relationship with the EU, that could have widespread appeal – from ex-Remainers and ex-Leavers alike. Opting back into Erasmus, solving border headaches for exporters, and alleviating visa headaches for creative industries could all be on the agenda. Even proposing rejoining the Customs Union might make sense. The problem would of course be that the Tories, egged on by their media cheerleaders, would shout “they’re just Remainers!” and Labour would be too scared to pursue this route.
The alternative would be to revisit ideas for a progressive pact between parties – for Labour to essentially stand down (or not campaign hard) in a few dozen seats that would best suit Lib Dem or Green candidates, and for the Lib Dems and Greens to do likewise where that suited Labour. And then the deal would be that, post-election win for these parties, reform of the first past the post election system. This one I cannot see Labour doing because of the excessive partisanship within the party, where especially the Lib Dems are often thought of my the members as little better than Tories.
But the essence is this: the EU question is not going to go away in UK politics, because there are parties with strong interests in making sure it does not go away. The sooner the Labour Party realises this is so the better.
* – please note I am deliberately not covering Wales and Scotland, and the independence question in this blog post. Those are questions for another time.
Next UK general election is in May 2024 under section 1(4) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, no? This does not change your conclusion; maybe even makes it stronger.