Rishi Sunak dismisses talk of Britain rejoining the EU

Financial Times

30 November 2023 - 09:42

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UK prime minister steps up attack on Greek counterpart over Elgin Marbles.

Rishi Sunak dismisses talk of Britain rejoining the EU

Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, has quashed suggestions from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that the “direction of travel” is for Britain to eventually return to the EU.

Sunak was in defiantly Eurosceptic mode on Wednesday, stoking a dispute with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, prime minister of Greece, and lampooning Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for liking the EU’s anthem “Ode to Joy”.

Asked whether Sunak believed Britain might rejoin the EU, his spokesperson said the prime minister was “focused on delivering the benefits of Brexit” and that he believed in it “passionately”.

Sunak stepped up his attack on his Greek counterpart in a dispute over the so-called Elgin Marbles, saying Mitsotakis had chosen to “grandstand” on the issue on a visit to London.

Rather than calming tensions, Sunak accused Mitsotakis of breaking a promise not to raise the subject in public. “When people make commitments they should keep them,” he told the House of Commons.

Sunak said he had cancelled a bilateral meeting at short notice because Mitsotakis had tried to “grandstand and relitigate issues of the past”. Greece wants the artefacts, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, returned from the British Museum to Athens.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Sunak had “tried to humiliate” Mitsotakis. Starmer’s spokesperson said Sunak was “willing to burn a relationship with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline”.

Sunak’s decision to fuel a diplomatic row with a centre-right European leader and ally is seen by Labour as an attempt by the prime minister to divert attention from his foundering efforts to control immigration.

The timing of the dispute is awkward: Sunak this month appointed former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary in a move widely portrayed as an attempt to lend weight to British foreign policy.

Lord Cameron last week tried to set a new tone in relations with the EU, saying he was “determined” to work closely with Brussels and that he wanted the UK to be a “friend, neighbour and partner” of the bloc.

The European Commission said its vice-president Maroš Šefčovič would meet Cameron in Brussels on Wednesday, as part of an attempt to forge a new personal relationship.

Meanwhile, von der Leyen suggested she would like to see Britain one day rejoin the EU, saying the Windsor framework that helped resolve tensions over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade deal marked “a new beginning for old friends”.

Asked if she would like to see Britain return to the EU, von der Leyen told a Politico event in Brussels: “I keep telling my children, ‘You have to fix it. We goofed it up. You have to fix it.’ So I think here, too, the direction of travel, my personal opinion is clear.”

A spokesperson for von der Leyen said her comments about Brexit were a “generational we”. “She was talking to her daughter and said her generation collectively had goofed,” he added.

Sunak’s comments in the House of Commons on Wednesday suggest he thinks there is political mileage to be gained by stoking disputes with EU countries and criticising pro-Europeans.

Sunak mocked Starmer for last week naming “Ode to Joy”, the EU anthem, as the piece of music he felt would best sum up Labour.

“He will back Brussels over Britain every time,” Sunak said. Starmer’s spokesperson said Labour had no intention of rejoining the EU or the single market.

The prime minister criticised the Labour leader for indicating he would not block a mutually agreed deal to see some of the Parthenon Sculptures loaned to Greece, if it was acceptable to Athens and the British Museum.

“No one will be surprised he’s backing an EU country over Britain,” Sunak said to cheers from Conservative MPs.

A Greek government official said: “In the spirit of the good longstanding relations between the two countries, which we intend to preserve, we have nothing more to add on this matter.”

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