Cleo Davies and Hussein Kassim / Apr 2023
After the reset of its relations with the EU, and alongside its roll over trade deals, the UK has been very keen to signal that it is engaging bilaterally with EU member states. In a departure from its original version, the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh emphasizes the UK’s role in Europe and lists, under the heading ‘Revitalising ties in Europe since Brexit’, the many UK bilateral and mini-lateral declarations it has signed with EU countries.
PM Rishi Sunak and other ministers make a great deal of UK bilateralism in Europe. In February 2023, Kemi Badenoch chose to use the signature of a memorandum of understanding on trade and investment with Italy, which she heralded as the ‘first such partnership between the UK and any EU country’, as the occasion for her first interview as Business and Trade Secretary of State. In March 2023, Sunak hailed ‘a new beginning’ in the France-UK relationship after he signed a Joint statement with President Macron at the countries’ first bilateral summit in five years. Between February and March 2023, James Cleverly, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, publicised signing Joint bilateral declarations with Malta, Slovakia and Romania.
So far, the UK has signed 15 general bilateral statements with EU member states and a number of sectoral memorandum of understandings or declarations. Beyond the flurry of activity, however, it is less clear what these declarations and statements are intended to deliver, and what the strategy is that lies behind them.
A closer analysis of the texts signed so far between the UK and counterparts across the European Union yields some initial insights.
The declarations and statements lay the ground for continuing, re-engaging or developing country-to-country relations after Brexit, by establishing structured dialogues. They confirm the UK’s position as a strategic ally, and its role in defence and security in Europe. Nevertheless, they also highlight the challenges faced by the UK in forging and maintaining its relationships with European neighbours as a third country, the consequences of the UK’s distance from EU decision-making, and the constraints on EU member states.
First, the declarations underscore how in many areas cooperation is delimited by the formal UK-EU framework. If in some areas, such as defence, the UK can go further in formalising relations, in others, bilateral possibilities are more limited. The UK may also face political barriers because member states are obliged or prefer to take prior action at EU level, which further complicates the task of developing coherent and effective collaboration across the full range of areas of interest to the UK all the more complex.
It is not only on the UK side that constraints are felt. The UK’s bilateral relations with its neighbours are mediated through their membership of the EU, which directly affects where they can act unilaterally or independently of the EU. Moreover, since they no longer have routine contact with UK representatives at Council meetings, how EU member states interact with the UK has to be clearly thought through. It is not only a question of where cooperation with the UK would be beneficial, but what would be the message sent to other national capitals and the European Commission – a particular concern when tensions were high over non-implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.
Furthermore, the bilateral statements and declarations are evidence of how the UK’s decision to leave the single market is shaping its post-Brexit relations with member states as much as other considerations of foreign policy or defence and security. Promoting and supporting bilateral trade and investment relations has now become a specific element of UK diplomacy in EU member states, when previously it was folded into the UK’s EU membership. In addition, opportunities for development are limited by parameters set by the TCA, while post-Brexit the UK may also have to navigate the EU’s agenda for strategic autonomy and emphasis on ‘onshoring’.
Cooperation on law enforcement and criminal information sharing is one of the most consistently detailed recurring provisions in the bilateral statements and declarations. The frequency with which it occurs suggests that the UK is seeking to compensate, through bilateralism, for the dramatic reduction or loss of access to key databases since Brexit.
It is too early to assess whether the bilateral dialogues will deliver or whether they will be institutionalised. Nevertheless, it is clear that they will require a sustained commitment of resources and sufficient soft power to create and maintain the necessary spaces for dialogue and cooperation. Describing his core business as a Junior Minister for Europe as ‘energetic bilateralism’ and ‘maintaining the drumbeat of diplomatic engagement’, when he gave evidence to the House of Lords in March 2023, Leo Docherty spoke of having visited 25 states across Europe in the past six months, some more than once, and of ‘doing his best’ to engage with the smaller EU member states too. Greg Hands visited Poland no less than three times between November 2021 and December 2022, notably to promote trade and investment relations. These are indicators of the kind of sustained dialogue at ministerial level that will be required to embed the intentions outlined in the statements and declarations, before they are likely to bear fruit.
 Greg Hands was Minster of State at the Department for International Trade between 9 October 2022 and 7 February 2023, and a Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy between 16 September 2021 and 7 September 2022