UK Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer has told French president Emmanuel Macron he wants to strengthen cross-Channel relations during “very political” talks that covered issues including trade and security.
Starmer also told business leaders in Paris he wanted to rewrite Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with the EU “to improve our trading relationship by removing barriers and improving opportunities for business”.
His comments follow a Financial Times interview in which the leader of the UK’s main opposition party said he wanted a “closer trading relationship” with the EU and that Johnson’s deal was “far too thin”.
There is scepticism in Brussels about whether the EU would offer Starmer improved terms, given that he insists a Labour government would not take the UK back into the EU single market, customs union or the bloc itself.
But Starmer — who hopes to win a UK general election which must take place by January 2025 — says he wants to grasp an “important” moment to reset Britain’s relationship with the EU when Johnson’s deal comes up for review.
He told a business breakfast in Paris that he wanted to “focus on building political and economic stability to ensure that you can confidently make decisions for the long term”.
Johnson’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU will be subject to a review at the start of 2026, five years after it came into effect. Starmer sees this as a big moment for a future Labour government.
He described his 45-minute meeting with Macron in Paris on Tuesday as “very political”. He declined to say whether they had discussed a possible reset of UK-EU relations.
The Élysée Palace said Macron and Starmer discussed economic and energy security, Ukraine and strengthening Anglo-French relations.
The Starmer visit to Paris came as a prominent London-based think-tank, UK in a Changing Europe, published a report highlighting the difficulties that Labour would face in seeking to radically improve UK-EU trade ties if the party won the next general election.
EU senior officials have warned that the review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in 2026 is limited to being an operational review, not a wholesale renegotiation.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak this year sought to resolve one of the biggest post-Brexit tensions between the UK and the EU by reaching agreement on new trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, in an accord dubbed the Windsor framework.
But Labour has said it wants to improve Johnson’s Brexit deal, partly by striking a veterinary agreement with the EU that would reduce border checks on animals and food.
Researcher Jannike Wachowiak, one of the authors of the UK in a Changing Europe report, said: “As things stand, the combination of Brexit fatigue, other priorities, looming elections (on both sides) and overall EU satisfaction with the [Trade and Cooperation Agreement] means the EU will be reluctant to invest resources into rethinking the partnership.”
Starmer’s hopes for a closer relationship with the EU come as the bloc’s member states focus on enlarging not west but east, to include Ukraine, Moldova and countries in the Balkans.
Many believe this should come alongside reform of how the EU works. On Tuesday, a group of French and German researchers published their proposals on how to adapt for enlargement, including by expanding majority voting to most member state decisions and reinforcing compliance measures when countries fail to meet requirements on rule of law and democracy.
The paper — which was commissioned by Laurence Boone and Anna Lührmann, Europe ministers for France and Germany, but developed independently of the two governments — also suggested different forms of “integration” with the bloc for non-member states.
This could include an “associate membership” for countries like the UK and Switzerland, said the researchers.
Boone declined to comment on the proposal of a new form of EU associate membership for the UK.
Asked about Starmer’s commitment to deliver a “much better” Brexit deal with the EU if he is elected next year, Ireland’s minister for European affairs Peter Burke said: “We do need good relations but currently we have a mechanism to progress those relations . . . the Windsor framework and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that we have to implement and we have to work through”.