David Henig / Nov 2023
Photo: European Union, 2023
For the next few years at least, the path of UK-EU relations seems broadly settled, deepening relations within the overall Trade and Cooperation Agreement framework. How that development takes place, at what pace, with what twists and turns in the road, is harder to predict. There is for a start the burden of memory – in the Commission at least there are plenty of scars from UK negotiation handling since 2016. Meanwhile many in the UK continue to struggle with Brussels rather than Member States as the key, a story wrapped up with fear of media accusations.
This current government is already pursuing a few mini-deals. If there is a Labour administration by early 2025, one which wants to do many more, they will need to understand that this will not be straightforward, and in particular will require considerable political goodwill. To understand what they need to do differently, a short history lesson of UK approaches before and after the referendum would be useful, because the first would seem to offer a far better model.
While the current government and their media supporters are prone to seeing the period prior to 2016 as a cozy consensus of pro-EU officialdom, many involved see this as a time when the UK was a serious Brussels player. Looking back to those days as one involved, there is a recollection of the final Eurostar of the day from Brussels as something of a UK government special as officials and stakeholders fresh from their respective committees, working groups, technical meetings and consultations compared notes on their respective files.
Underpinning UK handling of matters EU was a formal weekly cross-government meeting jointly led by the UK’s lead Brussels representative and the head of the Europe and Global Issues Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, also known as the Prime Minister’s Sherpa. Known according to the surnames of those individuals, this could be for example Cunliffe-Rogers. All serious EU business was discussed to ensure departments were aligned, though not in an exclusive manner as to control all relationships.
Forming the Department for Exiting the EU in 2016 saw this system end, replaced by a single lead. Negotiation as gladiatorial combat between big-hitters trading aggression was an outdated model even then - the idea of the single figure keeping cards close to their chest to secure victory simply not appropriate for sprawling and inter-linked agreements. There is no evidence it delivered a good result for the UK, plenty to the contrary, and certainly wasn’t the model of the EU, where a lead managed the politics, more technical deputies handled the many details, and all was based on extensive consultation.
In any case, the next steps in the UK-EU relationship won’t be one single negotiation but numerous engagements across departments. As is already seen, whether it is understanding regulatory options, migration, defence, trade, and much else, the EU dimension will feature in many UK policy debates. Thus, it will resemble more the pre-2016 model, suggesting that as well as a starting point for government structure.
This is particularly as the EU is going to have reciprocal demands cumulatively and in individual negotiations, for what is their single most important external trade agreement. A ‘mini-deal’ approach to future relations will not change the underlying difficulty of discussion with a regional hegemon. For the UK, this will continue to be tough going, not least as an EU more focused on enlargement will be wary of concessions to other neighbours. Brussels has never been without its own ambitions in developing the UK relationship, but these go alongside its red lines.
Modern negotiators consider respective positions of both sides to understand the best deal possible. For this to work well, it must be based on the right structures starting with steady political engagement, supported by strong internal coordination, and in consultation with the many stakeholders involved on both sides. Particularly for the EU relationship, this would be the ‘Team UK’ approach that has never really happened, hobbled by excess government secrecy. For when there are struggles to find a deal with the other party is also where there you need everyone involved to ensure a deep understanding of red lines, requirements, and the merely desirable.
None of this need wait for a change in administration, as some in and outside government are realising. Internal improvements have been made, though as yet the levels of coordination with other departments seem too limited. Politicians also seem reluctant to engage with Brussels, perhaps still reliving days as a member when other member states were more important than the Commission. Indeed, probably the weakest UK-EU arrangement at the moment is that at a political level, with only a Parliamentary exchange, and no regular high-level summits at leader or ministerial level. Putting these in place is widely seen as a relatively easy win that will in turn drive further official cooperation.
There is also a growing recognition that there are other ways to enhance engagement with the EU. Routine sharing of information between government departments and stakeholders, particularly those in Brussels such as the devolved administrations and UK business, is tentatively improving and should go further. Whitehall policy experts are being encouraged to engage with EU counterparts building goodwill as well as UK influence, though much more is needed. Working committees of the TCA may not be glamorous, but their role in building expert level relations is important. None of this is about replicating the influence the UK had as members, but rather making the best of new structures.
Too much focus of discussion about future UK-EU relations has been on the relatively minor matter of the review of implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement of 2026, not enough on how the overall relationship is developing. For it is through thickening arrangements at all levels that the two sides will find a more mature post-Brexit approach, that benefits stakeholders on both sides. That is already happening to a degree, but there is an opportunity particularly under a new government to put it on a much firmer footing.