Comment

UK - EU relations in a year of elections

Jannike Wachowiak and Cleo Davies / May 2024

Image: Shutterstock

 

The latest UK in a Changing Europe’s UK-EU relations tracker covers the evolution of the relationship in early 2024. More than a year after the breakthrough on new arrangements for Northern Ireland, the overall mood music between the two sides remains positive. As the European Commission puts it in its recent report, Windsor paved ‘the way for constructive cooperation’, with both parties fully committed to exploiting the potential of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

Whilst work continues at the technical level to implement the existing agreements, the focus on both sides is shifting to what might happen after the European Parliament and UK elections. In the UK, the prospect of a Labour government has raised expectations for closer relations with the EU. The Labour Party recently set out its foreign policy vision, including a UK-EU ‘security pact’ and the possibility of attending EU Foreign Affairs Councils. And the European Commission published a proposal for a reciprocal youth mobility scheme.

But as both sides appear to be thinking about areas for closer cooperation, their respective reactions to each other’s proposals have been lukewarm at best. Some EU officials reportedly dismissed the idea of regular UK access to Foreign Affairs Councils. Whilst the EU did not respond officially, it will likely be cautious about creating privileged access to its institutions.

The Commission’s idea for a youth mobility scheme, on the other hand, was rejected by both the current government and Labour. Whilst the Conservatives prefer bilateral deals with a handpicked number of EU member states over an EU-wide one, Labour (incorrectly) labelled the proposal as ‘synonymous with freedom of movement’, and therefore rebuffed it. Labour’s reaction, as well as the timing of the Commission’s proposal, revealed enduring Brexit sensitivities on both sides. Labour wants to appear tough on its red lines so close to a general election. And the EU, wary of UK bilateralism, wants to ensure an EU-wide approach, even in areas of no clear EU competence. With both sides focussed on internal considerations, and trust still repairing, negotiations will likely be far from straightforward.

In addition to new deals, a future Labour government would have to deal with the ongoing relationship. In April, the EU initiated consultations under the TCA’s dispute settlement mechanism for the first time over the UK’s ban of sand eel fishing. Tensions will likely be a normal feature of the post-Brexit relationship, no matter who is in power in the UK. But fisheries could prove to be a particularly difficult area, especially as access to UK waters for EU fishers will be up for renegotiation in 2026.

Bilaterally, the UK has focused its efforts this year on cementing research collaboration with EU member states, following its association to the EU’s Horizon Europe and Copernicus programmes in late 2023. A series of non-binding agreements and campaigns aim to bolster collaboration with partners in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.

At a political level, the Prime Minister’s domestic priorities, as he prepares for a general election, are also reflected in the UK’s external relations. ‘Support for Ukraine’ and ‘tackling illegal migration’ were the focus of Lord Cameron’s visit to Bulgaria and Poland in February, whilst Prime Minister Rishi Sunak systematically raises both issues in discussions with his European counterparts.

In terms of concrete developments on joint efforts to tackle migration related organised crime (people smuggling), the UK announced a Law Enforcement Cooperation Agreement with Belgium. It foresees UK officials ‘forward-deployed to Belgium to tackle shared threats, including in counter-people smuggling operations’. Furthermore, the UK and France agreed to lead on creating a ‘customs partnership’ to disrupt the supply of small boats.

Meanwhile, at EU level, the Home Office finalised a working arrangement with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, to reinforce operational cooperation in areas like irregular migration and cross-border crime. However, Sunak has so far been unsuccessful in his bid to secure return agreements to EU countries for migrants arriving illegally into the UK. Meanwhile, tensions are brewing between the UK and Ireland over the management of asylum seekers who cross the border into Ireland via Northern Ireland before applying for asylum.

Sunak’s focus on tackling ‘illegal migration’ is also reflected in the UK’s agenda for the European Political Summit (EPC) in Blenheim Palace on the 18 July. Whilst Sunak wants the summit to focus on Ukraine and ‘illegal’ migration, his previous attempts to include the latter in the EPC’s agenda caused irritation amongst some partners. Making it the focal point of the UK-hosted summit risks causing friction. As a loosely organised forum the EPC does not produce official statements or output. Its success  depends largely on leaders across the continent appearing united and continuing to show interest. The UK therefore wants to leave some space to partners to suggest issues which they ‘may want to put on the agenda’, and encourage broader discussions about the EPC’s future.

Whilst the EU and the UK continue to work together at different levels, there is a sense that any significant new collaboration will have to wait until after the elections. However, as recent episodes have shown, the new administrations will likely enter any negotiations with the shadow of Brexit still looming over tactics and perceptions on both sides.

Jannike Wachowiak

Jannike Wachowiak

May 2024

About this author ︎►

Cleo Davies

Cleo Davies

May 2024

About this author ︎►

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