Comment

UK-EU relations: Post Windsor it’s warm words over substance

Cleo Davies and Jannike Wachowiak / Jul 2023

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

The Windsor Agreement carried the promise of closer cooperation between the UK and the EU and the member states. When UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced the Framework, both hailed the opening of a new chapter in the UK-EU relationship. Their words were echoed days later by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, at the first France-UK Summit in five years.

However, the latest UK in a Changing Europe tracker on developments in UK-EU relations highlights that despite the improved mood music there has been little progress on substance and it is difficult to see that changing under the constraints of the new relationship.

Both the UK and the EU have spoken of ‘maximising the potential’ of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). In an early sign, they established regular dialogues on counterterrorism and on cybersecurity.

Nevertheless, an agreement on the UK’s participation in Union Programmes remains elusive and the tropes of past negotiations have reappeared. Whilst stakeholders point out the mutual benefit of an agreement, the UK PM speaks of a deal that works for UK taxpayers. This position risks being perceived in the EU as the UK trying to renegotiate post hoc the terms that were agreed during negotiations in 2020.

In other areas where they have moved forward, such as the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on regulatory cooperation on financial services, there are limits to what can be achieved. The UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt hailed the MoU ‘a turning point’. The European Commission also welcomed the agreement, but it was keen to underline that it does not include  equivalence and single market access. Indeed, if some harboured the hope that it could lead to easing of market access, the Commissioner for Financial Services, Mairead McGuinness, reiterated in May that the EU was still pursuing the onshoring of clearing activities.

As the dust settles post Windsor Agreement, the limited ambitions of the TCA have come into focus. A growing chorus of industry representatives are calling for easing barriers to trade and movement of people. For instance, industry representatives are keen to see an extension of the current local content requirements for electric vehicles. But, so far, their calls have been to no avail. And whilst the UK discussed post-Brexit barriers for UK touring artists with the European Commission, these issues are a function of the end of freedom of movement and limited mobility provisions in the TCA.

Meanwhile, opposition Labour politicians have talked up the five year review of the implementation of the TCA as an opportunity to go through the deal ‘page-by-page, seeking ways to remove barriers and improve opportunities for business’. Maroš Šefčovič, however, reminded the audience at the EU-UK forum annual conference in June, that ‘trade can no longer be frictionless and dynamic as it was when the UK was part of the single market’. For the EU, the TCA represents a good agreement, painstakingly negotiated to balance the interests of 27 member states, and each party’s red lines.

In a sign of consolidating bilateral relations, the UK government has continued to sign non-binding MoUs and joint declarations with member states. With a few notable exceptions, such as Spain, the UK has now formally established strategic bilateral dialogues with almost all member states.

But there are limitations to what can be achieved bilaterally, either because of the constraints imposed by the formal relationship under the TCA, or because only the EU can act in these areas. Even where member states are able to agree bilateral deals, they may be reluctant to do so for political reasons.

For instance, in discussions with EU counterparts over the past months, the UK has focused on the issue of migration, a major political priority for Rishi Sunak. But there has beevery little ground made on bilateral deals with member states or between the UK and the EU on returning migrants to EU member states. The EU and member states have no political incentive in giving the UK a deal on what is a very sensitive matter intra-EU too. Meanwhile, the EU reached an agreement at 27 on migration and asylum laws early June.

Some in the UK have mooted the idea of reciprocal visa schemes for young people from certain member states. The Times also reported that the government was seeking an agreement with France, Spain and Germany. However, whilst member states can sign individual deals, there is little evidence that any of the 27 will forego an EU wide approach if it risks discrimination between member states. Once again, the legacy of the Brexit negotiations casts its shadow.

Overall, increased trust and better mood music appear to be necessary but not sufficient conditions for building on the existing relationship under the TCA. In the bilateral sphere, the UK will have to commit considerable resource and soft power if it wants to give practical meaning to the array of non-binding agreements it has signed with member states since leaving the EU.

 

Cleo Davies

Cleo Davies

July 2023

About this author ︎►

Jannike Wachowiak

Jannike Wachowiak

July 2023

About this author ︎►

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