Richard Whitman / Mar 2021
The EU-UK relationship seems to be stuck in a rut of mutual discontent. Although the recent joint statement on vaccine procurement and coordinated sanctions on senior Chinese officials (involved in human rights abuses in Xijiang) indicate that dispute on every issue is not inevitable, the relationship has not yet entered a settled condition.
How could we get to a ‘new normal’ in EU-UK relations? There are some relatively easy adjustments that could be taken to improve the tone and tenor of the relationship:
Get the Trade and Cooperation Agreement properly up and running
The completion of the European Parliament’s delayed approval of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) will signal the start of the ‘new normal’ in the EU-UK relationship. It is a symbolic moment in finally reaching the completion of formal agreements after all the political turmoil of the Brexit referendum, Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and future relationship negotiations. Implementing the provisions of the WA and the TCA expeditiously and in good faith will create a relationship that encompasses much more than just a trading relationship between the EU and the UK. And it also requires areas of disagreement over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the status of EU Delegation to the UK to be treated as exercises in problem-solving rather than opportunities for public grandstanding.
UK public diplomacy needs to be recalibrated
With the implementation of all provisions of the WA and TCA underway there does also need to be parallel broader and deeper consideration in London, Brussels, and the EU member state capitals as to the expectations for their long term future relations.
The recently published Integrated Review recognises the UK remains intertwined with the security of Europe; and the UK has a significant stake in the continuing stability and well-being of the EU’s single market and the Euro. It would also advance the relationship if the UK recognised that the EU has an overwhelming interest in the success of its ‘new neighbour’ in terms of a healthy UK economy, political integrity, and the cohesiveness of its society.
Consequently the UK needs to think about how it engages with a future EU - rather than referencing its period as a member as a guide for UK future EU policy. This needs to be accompanied by much better UK public diplomacy on the EU. Nuance not nationalism should be the UK’s watchword.
No new agreements for now
The near future of the EU-UK should not take the form of a push from Brussels or member state capitals to negotiate further formal agreements on issues excluded from the trade and cooperation agreement, such as foreign policy or defence.
The WA and TCA already create sufficient work to ensure successful implementation and establishing the successful operation of the Joint Committee and the Partnership Council should be the priority.
There is little appetite from the UK side for fresh negotiations right now, given a strong domestic political imperative to be able to signal the Brexit process has been concluded. And grappling with the economic, social and political consequences of the Covid pandemic will be preoccupying.
Ensure greater connectivity of mutual interests
A mutual interest in the security and stability of each other is apparent and comes through in the UK’s concerns set out in the Integrated Review. There is a shared analysis on the common set of international challenges, such as China, climate change, the US commitment to the multilateral international order, the stability of Europe’s neighbourhood, and, especially, future relations with Russia.
A consideration for the UK is the need to think about its relationship to the EU’s Strategic Autonomy agenda and, in turn, the EU needs to pursue an ‘Open’ rather than a ‘Closed’ approach to Strategic Autonomy. The complexity of Europe’s vaccine supply chains has been a salutary demonstration that the EU-UK are interdependent in key sectors and the extent to which either can be excluded from moves to focus on the capacity to act autonomously.
Don’t make the best the enemy of the good
At the moment it is difficult to discern a timeline for an upgraded EU-UK relationship beyond the TCA. For example with a focus on areas in which there is the obvious need for a more structured future relationship notably on foreign, security and defence poicy cooperation.
Consequently the EU and its member states to look for other ways to manage the relationship in this area bilaterally, minilaterally (through arrangements such as the E3 and the G7) but also multilaterally via NATO.
EU member states should also suspend scepticism about the UK’s Global Britain project – and use the opportunity provided by the UK’s publication of the Integrated Review for a constructive dialogue on how to connect with the UK’s international aspirations.
With both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement finally in place, and the UK’s long-awaited Integrated Review published, the European Union and the UK can now rebuild their broader relationship and focus on shared interests. And using their new shared institutional arrangments to resolve differences rather than forums to perpetuate disagreements. The impetus should be in rebuilding a ‘new normal’ that is a shared automatic reflex for cooperation that serves the best interests of both sides of the English Channel.