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A reset in EU UK relations: if not not now, when?

Jim Cloos / Jun 2024

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On 4 July 2024, the British will go to the polls to elect a new government. This is the moment to review the state of EU-UK relations and to evaluate the chances of a reset. So far, Labour representatives have been careful not to raise any expectations. The British political class still seems mesmerised by the improbable character of Farage. Keir Starmer simply talks about making Brexit work. But since it clearly does not work that well, that leaves ample scope for improving cooperation with the EU.

Seen from Brussels, restoring confidence in the relations across the Channel makes eminent sense. The world around us is burning. The whole of Europe is under siege. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has changed the traditional paradigms. Both the EU and Britain have a major stake in foiling Putin’s plans. Europe must up its game across the board. This is even more obvious if one considers developments in the US.

We therefore need an ambitious and wide-ranging framework agreement on security between the EU and the UK. The EU will become a much bigger player in the security and defence area, starting with a revamped European armaments industry. The question is whether and how Britain wants to be part of that development. That could also have a positive ricochet effect on other areas of cooperation, be they Erasmus, Galileo, EUROPOL, migration or energy.

In view of past misunderstandings, any reset in the relations requires a better understanding of the other side. The EU baffles foreign observers. The British, having been part of the club for so long, should have an advantage here. But do they? Opt-outs always put London a bit at the edge of the EU. The increasingly ideological stance of the political establishment compounded the problem; British “pragmatism” evaporated when it came to Europe. They no longer listened to their administration. This is a more general phenomenon word-wide, but it was surprising in the country that produced “Yes Prime Minister” or “Yes Minister.” And what to say about the part of the British press that loved to hate the EU and to present a caricatural picture of a bureaucratic behemoth working to erode British sovereignty.

Any British government will logically defend British interests. But so will the EU. Now that Britain is a third country, the transactional approach will naturally be the default option, but it will hold for the two sides! There will be no one-sided cherry picking nor a free ride. The tactic of divide and impera will not work, because of the way the EU functions. When negotiations started after the Brexit vote, people in Brussels were scared that the British would “pull us over the table” with their excellent negotiating skills. I never shared that view. One, because London simply did not listen to the excellent British administration. Two, and more crucially, in the negotiation about Brexit, the EU’s weakness was also its strength. Brexit is ‘Chefsache,’ which means that the European Council takes the big decisions, and this needs consensus. The British did try to build “coalitions” with individual Member States, but to no avail. The reason is simple. If Luxembourg believes that its financial centre will suffer because of a deal with Britain, it will veto it. Yes, even Luxembourg. In an interview with the FT on 17 April, shadow Foreign Secretary Lammy stated that the UK “should single out 4 EU MS with which the UK should double down on close relations.” That is not a promising idea, at least not if the intention is to bludgeon recalcitrant Member States into submission within the Council or the European Council. It is an altogether different matter if it means pleading for close channels of communication for instance on security and defence with France and the other major EU actors in this field. That is not only acceptable, but also plain common sense.

I am more in line with Mr Lammy’s call fort “progressive realism “in his recent article published in Foreign Affairs. What we need is less public rhetoric and more quiet work behind the scenes to prepare for a reset after the elections. I see particular merit in discrete soundings before the adoption of the EU’s new Strategic agenda by the June. Now is the time to ensure that Europe still matters in an increasingly difficult and even hostile world.

 

The author writes in a personal capacity and in a personal manner. This is a shortened version of a text published on the EIAG website in early June.

Jim Cloos

Jim Cloos

June 2024

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