Simon Usherwood / Jun 2023
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In the bold new era of post-Windsor relations between the EU and the UK there is a lot of talk about working together.
Listen to many of those siren voices who, during 2017-19, used to speak of making a clean break with the European Union for risk of being dragged back into either vassalage or membership and you now hear more emollient words on the need to cooperate on questions such as climate change or the war in Ukraine.
The logic they offer is clear and simple: we face common challenges that impact us in similar ways, so working in a coordinated manner is likely to produce better outcomes for us all that trying to do it by ourselves.
If we leave aside the question of how this logic applies in these particular cases only, rather than as more generic approach to the world in which we live, then we are still left with a big question: what does it mean to ‘cooperate’?
I say tomato…
Fully aware that this risks coming across as an academic exercise in definitions, let’s start by tackling this in as simple a way as possible.
To the average woman in the street, ‘cooperation’ suggests sitting down and working out how you can do things together that would be otherwise possible. Want to make sure Ukraine gets the materiel it needs to fight off Russia? Then checking what other countries have makes sense, in covering gaps and optimising deliveries.
But very quickly we start to run up against a number of issues.
Firstly, there’s the matter of who’s doing the sitting down. Diplomatic convention limits the scope to turn up at someone’s door, especially if that door is in another country, and it might be that even if you can get to speak to someone, they might not be the right person to speak to.
Secondly, there’s the question of scope. You might start with arms to Ukraine, but that comes with implications about logistics chains and training and broader effects on domestic militaries; throw in sanctions and you’re now getting economy-wide effects. Combatting climate change is also necessarily systemic and society-wide.
So maybe you need to have some kind of written agreement about who’s doing what and where the focus (and limits) might be in cooperating. Just to keep things on the straight and narrow.
But then you run into a different kind of issue: how do you ensure that the commitments you make actually get done? Whether that’s to make a quick buck or to look like they’re taking a bold step ahead of everyone else, that might compromise your shared interests in the longer run.
A soft response to this would be to strengthen your language in your written agreement and hoping people are as good as their word. Or maybe you want to have some kind of enforcement or sanction mechanism to punish straying from what’s been agreed.
But tying other people’s hands also usually means tying your own hands too.
…let’s call the whole thing off?
Which brings us back to the critique that we kicked off with: you might start with wanting to ‘work together’ on things where that’s obviously useful, but you quickly end up entangling yourself in legal texts and obligations.
Brexiteers might not agree on much, but ‘taking back control’ was rather central to the 2016 referendum, so heading back into commitments with the EU looks as problematic now as it did back then.
But there’s a key difference.
As a member state, the UK was bound into not only the legal obligations of the treaties, but also the political responsibility to keep the organisation functioning and functional. That implied a degree of working to norms and practices that were the EU’s baseline.
Now the UK is outside membership and isn’t looking to regain membership (regardless of whether the EU wants the UK back inside).
So the spiralling expansion of ‘working together’ that Brexiteers saw as the thin end of the wedge isn’t there: the cooperation goes as far as both sides can agree on and no further.
Yes, that means it’s more limited than might otherwise be the case, but it’s a situation that potentially unlocks the barriers to building a more stable relationship wherein all sides can feel in control of what happens.
In the longer term, the likely multiplication of points of working together will require more reflection on how these sit with each other, but as we continue to work back towards something more like regular interactions between two significant (and neighbouring) international powers this might be the most that is possible right now.
British European policy has always been characterised by a degree of pragmatism; dealing with situations as they arise, rather than making grand plans. Acknowledging that the UK is not stepping back into the same waters as before might be the way in which we all move from the mistrust of the Johnson years into a more constructive future.