Geopolitical upheavals are pushing the UK and the EU closer together, but there’s no guarantee that relations will improve in the long term.

Brexit split the Western axis of an already fragmented world. The rift between the United Kingdom and the European Union, triggered above all by intra-Conservative party dynamics, came as a surprise to many, since EU membership was essential for the United Kingdom’s economy and place in the world. Conversely, the UK made a substantial contribution to the EU’s role on the global stage.

Interestingly, growing global tensions and the UK’s subsequent geopolitical positioning hardly featured during the Brexit debates. The right wing of the Conservative party focused the discussions on national sovereignty as an end in itself. Emerging changes in the wider global order played, at best, a minor role in the search for an alternative – that is, better – global role for the UK.

So much so that around the time of the referendum in 2016, moderate Brexit philosophies of a deregulated Britain, located somewhere between Europe and the United States, benefitting from globalisation thanks to an agile “West Coast tech mentality,” enjoyed a certain popularity. In truth, this vision was never plausible; eight years later, the geopolitical situation makes it seem more limited than ever.

Yet it is precisely this new geopolitical environment that is the basis for rapprochement after a messy divorce. Détente was triggered by Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, showing up sharply common democratic values, an inescapable geographical connection, and collective security interests.

As a result, the political and diplomatic tone has been more optimistic ever since sanctions against Russia were agreed in the G7 and came into force in the summer of 2022. Around the same time, the Windsor Agreement was devised to regulate the post-Brexit movement of goods between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the single market, and the European Union. The deal defused political tensions around the re-establishment of an Irish land border, a decisive contribution to stabilising the new normal.

And yet, the new status quo is anything but satisfactory. The precise nature of relations between Brussels and London remains hazy, whether in terms of institutional cooperation or on economic and – increasingly important – security policy. The 2024 elections to both the European Parliament and Westminster are, however, an opportunity to develop ties further.

Looking at concrete opportunities for change, three questions stand out: What technical adjustments are possible within the framework of existing structures? Where will Britain’s new third country status impose structural limits on cooperation? And what are shared, new objectives in the medium term? Going forward, the long-term task of reimagining a bespoke partnership hangs in the air – a subject politically impossible to address in both London and Brussels at the time of writing.

London not Calling

The limited degree of institutional cooperation between the two political entities is plain to see. As explicitly requested by the government of the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the joint EU-UK political declaration of 2019 does not provide for summits between the two, in striking contrast to agreements the EU has with Switzerland, Norway, and Turkey.

In addition, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) concluded between the UK and the EU in 2020 contains no significant clauses on foreign or defence policy cooperation. Former British diplomats speak of serious disruptions in communication and subsequent knowledge drain.

The government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pointed to a variety of alternative forums for discussion, in particular the G7 and the newly-created European Political Community, an intergovernmental forum for discussions on the future of Europe, established in 2022. But former British diplomats to the EU have spoken of serious disruptions in communication with the EU, and a knowledge drain as a consequence.

Rapid developments inside the EU since 2016 have received less attention in British political circles than before Brexit. The opposition Labour Party, widely expected to win the next British general election, is calling for “a structured dialogue at both the political and official levels.”

Structural Barriers to Cooperation

As for economic relations, there are significant gaps in the TCA. These include practical questions about the mobility of workers and young people in Europe and the UK, as well as reciprocal recognition of professional qualifications, the controversial application of EU rules of origin for British electric cars, and the lack of regulation on trade in animal and plant products. The agreement obliges both sides to take stock by 2026. Here too, Labour wants to see renegotiations.

However, any such discussions could run into structural barriers. The TCA is designed to benefit Brussels: It offers only patchy regulations in services – a key strength of the UK economy – while much more comprehensively covering the trade in goods, in which the EU runs a trade surplus. More importantly, separate regulatory oversight regimes and a lack of jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice mean that even a revised and better implemented TCA will continue to include burdensome border controls.

Labour has nonetheless ruled out any substantial rapprochement with the internal market in its first legislative period. A fundamentally new agreement, better tailored to the UK, for instance along the lines of the “Jersey model” – membership of the EU internal market for goods and commodities, but not services – is not even on the horizon.

Different industrial strategies in the EU and in the UK may also lead to new conflicts. The EU has doubled down on its industrial policy ambitions with the “Green Deal Industrial Plan.” If Labour succeeds in implementing a new strategy for the UK – looking to strengthen its innovative services sector and renewable energy production – this could stand in direct competition with the EU’s industrial subsidy plans.

A Security Pact with the EU?

European defence policy may offer more potential for medium-term cooperation. The UK is already seeking to participate in a joint European defence project as part of the PESCO initiative. It could also support EU military missions, provided the necessary framework agreement can be negotiated.

At the same time, the European Union’s efforts to achieve strategic autonomy could produce new barriers to cooperation. No agreement currently exists between the UK and the European Defence Agency, unlike in the cases of Norway, Switzerland, and the United States.

Moreover, British cooperation with the European Defence Fund is proving difficult, with consequences for the European defence industry. The reasons for this can be traced to French ambivalence regarding British involvement in European defence and security policy.

But it is in this policy area that shared objectives are most easily identified. Since its re-election in 2019, the UK’s Conservative government has made concerted efforts to re-conceptualise and re-invigorate British foreign policy. This drive was undertaken not least in response to suggestions that Brexit could isolate the country on the international stage.

The “Global Britain” strategy introduced by Johnson’s government in March 2021 leaned above all towards the Indo-Pacific, underpinned by military and trade agreements, including AUKUS and CPTPP. This orientation was confirmed two years later by the Sunak government but was smartly interwoven with a security strategy primarily aimed at Europe.

At its core, then, British foreign policy acknowledges that protecting the Western liberal order against authoritarian threats can only occur through close cooperation with European partners. In addition, the British government has also negotiated some 70 new trade agreements, often with associated security deals, a necessary task after 50 years of EU membership. This attitude to foreign policy and security matters appears convincing in and of itself, but its financing is open to question given the desolate state of the British economy.

No major changes should be expected from a Labour government. The party’s central demand so far is a “security pact with the EU,” intended to complement Britain’s orientation towards NATO. Labour also wants to focus on strengthening bilateral relations with European partners, specifically citing France and Germany, as well as the E3 format that emerged from the Iran negotiations, a reminder of UK foreign policy leadership during the last Labour government under Tony Blair.

Labour would like its approach to be seen as a rapprochement with Europe and the EU. However, it is striking that the European dimension of Labour’s broader “Britain Reconnected” strategy is mentioned in the same breath as a string of further foreign policy issues. Labour seems to view at least the narrow relations with the EU not as part of a larger British destiny, but merely as another foreign policy challenge to be considered alongside development aid and climate change.

Open Questions

It remains unclear whether Labour’s restraint on both economic and security issues is simply tactical, with an eye on the upcoming election, or whether it has deeper roots. It is not impossible that Euroscepticism, a philosophy with a long tradition across the British left, has evolved into a sense of indifference after Brexit. Maybe Labour is “just not that into EU”, as a British newspaper recently remarked.

It is also unclear what dynamics might be triggered by the arrival of a large new cohort of Labour MPs, as well as by changes in public opinion. Uncertainty also surrounds the influence of new right-wing populist forces in Britain, who are seeking to split the Conservative party, an aim they may well achieve.

The current course of the British government points to a steady improvement in relations with Brussels, focussing on the implementation and expansion of the TCA and on rapprochement in foreign and security policy. A Labour election victory would likely boost this strategy and introduce an even more constructive tone to relations. But questions must be asked as to whether the pace of change is sufficient, given the possible re-election of Donald Trump as US president, and other geopolitical upheavals.

Fundamental changes to the EU-UK relationship – and indeed the creation of a genuinely bespoke partnership – will require political renegotiations at the highest level. This will in turn require more far-reaching pro-European commitments on the British side, supported by politically feasible offers, notably in the form of a comprehensive security partnership.

For its part, the EU must offer openness and flexibility – but the EU’s geopolitical rhetoric can quickly run into legal and technocratic barriers. A security partnership between “like-minded allies,” for instance, is hardly compatible with a trade agreement that is deeply problematic for the UK. Such incoherence may come back to haunt Brussels and key member states in the future.

Translated from German by Dr. Brían Hanrahan

About the author

Jake Benford is Senior Project Manager on Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe‘s Future programme.

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