Allie Renison / Jul 2020
If you believe in the seven stages of grief, you’d still be hard pressed to know where the UK and EU have ended up. The seemingly never-ending negotiation setting has locked in resurgent emotions that, far from progressing in a linear consequential manner, collectively rear their head with each successive announcement of limited progress in talks as both sides trot out the blame game early. Even as someone who remains optimistic about a deal, it seems inevitable much of the repair to relations will only come after transition has ended. Which is why those who care about the long term future of those relations must move well beyond Brexit to conceptualising what cooperation looks like in a world transformed by the current pandemic.
There are some who might wish to situate this in the context of a longer-term goal in getting the UK to rejoin the EU. While understanding of the genuinely-held sentiment, this would be a mistake on more than one grounds. There is a deep and equally understandable suspicion amongst a politically popular groundswell in the UK that any cooperation leading to coordination is purely for the purposes of facilitating a path towards rejoining. The previous government’s chipping away of its own red lines fuelled much of this, regardless of whether it was noble in intent (or rather, adjustment).
This has led to a response -political and societal in many parts- that lends itself to throwing the baby out with the bathwater; alignment itself became a metaphor for Remain rather than being judged on its own merits and where it was (and was not) in our interests. This has been to the frustration of many who moved quickly on from “whither Brexit” to “how best to” in the period after the referendum - debates about the right balance of rights and obligations were rapidly co-opted to become proxies for Leave and Remain all over again.
With the spectre of a second vote no longer looming large over British politics, it is to the determination of many this not happen a second time as we mull what the future of genuine cooperation should be. Not as a means to an end - unless that end is the advancement of shared interests. For too long, the shadow of suspicion and constant framing of negotiations (past and present) as an existential power battle has made it almost impossible to truly approach the future as a partnership. That final stage of acceptance remains yet elusive.
Both the UK and EU have in their own way let negotiations on the future become consumed with a focus on process and control, with trade continuity clearly lower down the priority pecking order. Where London makes clear that the ability to fully diverge even if they don’t wish to diverge is supreme, Brussels too puts its cherished legal order on the highest of pedestals. This government may have decided to forego alignment writ large, yet there is still much to play for. If there is a silver lining to the limited negotiating period, it is that the end of transition may herald a marked shift to focusing more on collective outcomes.
Is it too much to hope that the US, UK and EU could come together in a trilateral trade negotiation, as floated by former senior US official Peter Chase? The starting gun on talks between Washington and London may have been fired but there remains ample space to kill two birds with one stone in many wider areas, including the digital standards space as China and Russia team up with their markedly less liberal approach to data flows. The recent followup ECJ ruling to Schrems may present a huge headache for both US and now UK arrangements on cross-border data exchange, but it could also be the impetus for a more comprehensive bridging mechanism. How the UK and EU potentially align in the WTO as independent entities, with natural overlapping policy priorities and alliances, will be a particularly interesting one to watch.
Nothing could present a more immediate pretext for thinking seriously and productively about future cooperation than the impact of coronavirus on travel and mobility. Recent quarantine challenges underline the importance of collective rather than unilateral action, with the resurgence of regionalism a dominant trend among countries tentatively opening back up borders. The government may want to focus on bilateral deals as a third country outside the Single Market, but a future framework for coordinating reciprocal arrangements on health insurance and social security with the EU at a minimum are in our collective interest. Many of our respective citizens will want to continue living and working abroad.
Focusing on shared interests does not mean the UK will or should join every EU initiative arising from the pandemic or beyond, just as some member states have opted out of various schemes. After transition ends, we must move away from constantly framing these decisions as politicised power games. It is disappointing that it takes a fuller economic and trade break to bring about the reset that UK-EU relations so desperately needs, but we must also grasp the opportunity for a reset wherever and whenever it presents itself. Our transformed world demands nothing less.