Brexit boredom is one thing – but there’s a real problem when Britain’s leaders won’t even talk about Europe anymore

British politics has, in recent years, been plagued by two competing forces when it comes to Europe.

On one side, there is an understanding that the UK and the EU need to rub along, because of their proximity and importance to one another and because of their shared values and interests.

On the other side, the UK’s relationship with Europe is not that interesting to most people – be they voters or politicians. The issues often seem distant and complex, it’s hard to work out who’s a winner or a loser, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the metaphorical price of bread.

Unfortunately, just because something is dull doesn’t make it unimportant.

Hence David Cameron could win the leadership of the Conservative party in 2005 by saying that it had to stop “banging on about Europe”, only to find himself a decade later losing a referendum about EU membership.

And now Britain finds itself in a similar position once again.

With all of the main party manifestos now published, the European issue has once again disappeared from the agenda. In their manifesto, the Conservatives talk only in passing about the “benefits of Brexit”.

The Liberal Democrats have moved their once totemic policy of returning to the EU to the back end of their document. Reform UK is leading its campaign on messages of a country in decline rather than putting Brexit, its initial reason for being, high on the agenda.

Labour, likewise, has pushed EU relations to the margins, constrained by its own firm language about not unpicking the fundamentals of the post-membership deals. Even the comments by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves on better deals for the chemicals industry or the City of London have little apparent substance behind them.

A man looking out to sea.
Europe: you can practically see it – just not in any election manifestos.
PA/Tolga Akmen

While this might all be sensible politics in the context of an election where relatively few voters think the issue is an important one, it comes with risks in the longer term.

The most important risk is where we started: the UK and EU cannot help but matter to each other. Regardless of the formal terms of the relationship, developments on one side of the Channel do affect what happens on the other.

A good example is the consolidation of the radical right in the European parliament elections earlier this month. The increased presence of these parties in decision making will mean shifts in the EU’s policies across the board. More pressure to protect EU businesses from external competition might create new barriers to trade or cooperation with the UK, even if there is no change to the treaties involved.

Likewise, the surprise legislative election in France caused by the poor performance of president Emmanuel Macron’s party in those European elections might result in a French government that becomes more erratic in its European policy, or one that is simply unable to make any decisions. Either option would shape the EU as much as it would the bilateral Franco-British relationship.

The EU, just like the UK, is always evolving and responding to the interplay of different interests. And because it never stands still, choosing not to have a more active policy stance becomes something of a risk.

Blank space

The post-Brexit arrangements put in place by the trade and cooperation agreement at the end of 2020 were, to a considerable extent, a placeholder. This set up a framework for interactions between the EU and the UK, together with a (rather limited) wishlist of things to do.

As the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 demonstrated, even that framework has proven unsuitable for managing a pressing issue of joint concern. That’s why there’s a burgeoning system of informal cooperation outside that agreement on security and defence.

If Ukraine was an extreme example, then it should not distract from questions on trade, regulation, mobility or the thousand-and-one other things that affect people and businesses living and working across the UK-EU borders. All require a more comprehensive and active policy by governments.

What’s more, the nominal priorities of the parties standing in this election – economic growth, improving public services, action on the environment – all have a European dimension. From trade liberalisation to effective pricing of carbon to access to skilled migrants, any future government will find both opportunities and challenges in working with, around or against the EU.

A lack of public discussion is a problem. But more fundamentally, all parties might consider how a failure to identify and manage such cross-linkages affects their entire programmes. This is true regardless of what a party wants and regardless of what relationship exists with the EU.

Cameron might have been right about not “banging on” about such questions, but that is not the same as ignoring an essential and unavoidable part of the international landscape in which the UK operates.

The less politicians talk now about the choices to be made and the consequences these might have, the more they will find themselves having to firefight situations in the coming years.

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