David Henig / Nov 2022
Scene at the downstairs coffee bar in one of the more anonymous of EU buildings in the Schuman quarter of Brussels, two Commission officials, and their longstanding contacts, established in the days of UK membership. Subject for discussion, how in the event of a change in UK government those various plans floated by Keir Starmer or others around the Labour Party seeking to make Brexit work could be, basically, made to work.
To be clear, this is not the conversation about the UK rejoining the EU, or about a Customs Union or Single Market. For now, those involved on both sides understand this to be unrealistic. That’s not just about the politics, but also that for all the bravado that can come to both the EU and UK, it is well understood by the experienced folk on both sides that this relationship has not gone well since 2016, and that the pathway to better is a fraught one.
Nonetheless, in Brussels and London, for those travelling between them, the change of mood with regard to UK-EU relations is palpable, across UK political parties, and within EU institutions. That scene is not a one-off. The reason obviously starts in London, where voices that once argued no-deal would be fine, that seek to score political points with EU bashing, are clearly in some decline even within the Conservative Party. The Sunak government’s commitment to getting a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol is real, even if the compromises required to do so seem far from understood.
Much more so though, it is the now very real prospect that the UK will see its first Labour Prime Minister since 2010 after the next election that is sparking a change in sentiment. Two years is too long a time in politics for anyone to be taking anything for granted, but large opinion poll leads and a Conservative Party evidently running out of road raise expectations of change.
Labour’s ties with the EU have long been stronger than those of the current government, having stayed part of one of the major continental political groupings. There is also no taint in having spent some time in Brussels, and party grandees like Peter Mandelson and Baroness Ashton doubtless maintain contacts with former Commissioner colleagues and senior officials. Beyond the politicians, there are also plenty of former UK officials from the days of regular Brussels meetings maintaining various networks, hoping to offer them to the likely next government.
On the European side, with plenty of folk across institutions recalling encounters with the UK surprisingly fondly given more recent events, there is no shortage of potential interlocutors. While formal encounters with current UK officials may be prohibited at least in the Commission, there is no such restriction on the traditional Brussels pastimes of lunch, coffee, or receptions. The purpose might be to learn of what is likely to happen in the UK, what the EU might be able to offer, or who may be involved, in other words the classic information broking so crucial to EU functioning.
Though diminished, further support is available from the wider UK community in Brussels, beyond the formal diplomats. There are the devolved governments of Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, business representatives, remaining nationals in the institutions, think-tankers, lobby groups, journalists, and so on, all with their own agendas and contacts, and many hoping in the future for closer relations of some sort. They may also be the ones most likely to be offering cautionary notes, for such a path is likely to be far from easy.
That there will be no special deals offered to the UK is well understood at least by those who have spent serious times in Brussels, but possibly not in London across the political spectrum. By contrast, persistent hopes around the EU that the UK will in the near future seek some formal structure beyond the Trade and Cooperation Agreement do not really reflect the London debate as it stands, particularly given halfway houses such as the single market never really took off as options. An awkwardness may then be introduced into conversations as another country is introduced, namely Switzerland, as in the EU’s reluctance to have another similarly messy relationship.
Space for extended UK-EU agreements is thus rather more restricted than widely understood, even before going into detail of specific subjects, and constraints within them. Taking my own trade focus, the EU has been developing an entire suite of ‘autonomy’ measures such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, whose impact on third countries such as the UK is far from certain. Possible trade enhancements often discussed such as a veterinary agreement or UK accession to the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean convention on rules of origin carry their own complexities.
Doubtless the situation is similar in other policy areas where restoring relations is being discussed. That’s international relations and EU politics, there are rarely simple and quick solutions. If any UK government wants a better relationship, it will not come easily. Facilitation from those with experience could help, or they could work against each other, as has more often been the case since 2016. One can easily imagine a future UK government seeking a specific improvement, being knocked back in some way, returning then to a position where the UK thinks the EU intransigent, and the EU thinks the UK unrealistic.
No single course of action can guarantee that this will not happen, but we can perhaps learn from what has not happened since 2016, and might have helped. A widely respected political figure heading up relations, possibly based in Brussels. UK stakeholders working together with the government on the basis of clarity and consensus on broad and realistic aims, brokered by said figure. Use of political agreements to signal direction ahead of technical negotiations which will inevitably encounter difficulties. Many more UK officials and others involved in the policy-making process travelling regularly to Brussels as was once the case. Use of EU Member States not to go against the EU line, but as sources of information.
One can almost hear the cries of betrayal from the diehard Brexiters to this list, the fears that this is the road back to membership as the deep state has always wanted. Such an attitude would preclude almost any improvement, though, which implies continuing UK political and economic turmoil while global Britain fantasies fail to materialise. For now, to some suspicion also from the most pro-EU voices, we are talking about stabilising and improving what we have, or indeed to repeat a phrase, Making Brexit Work. Those are the conversations that have started, and seem bound to intensify over the coming years.