Moving On: The UK and the EU Must Look to the Future

One of the most miserable characteristics of the UK-EU negotiations that have been staggering on since the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 following the 2016 EU Referendum, has been the pervasive narrative of ‘re-litigation’ surrounding the vote itself. For some of those on the Remain side who struggled to comprehend or make peace with the outcome, the prospect that it had been secured without legitimacy kept the flame alive that the decision could be overturned. In turn, some on the Leave side have recognised their interest in propagating this narrative, and depicting all those in the Remain camp as embittered and delusional conspiracy theorists.

The effect of this cynicism, on both sides, has been to unnecessarily prolong the importance of the Leave and Remain identities – both socially and politically – and to frame the UK-EU negotiations as a winner-takes-all fight to the death. Both of these developments have been important in shaping the nature of the deal at stake – which is, let’s be frank, considerably less integrated and ‘harder’ than it needed to be.

Hindsight is often condemned as a privileged vantage point, but the unwillingness to dwell on the choices that have been made around the Referendum – even if one contains them to those made after the result was known – has allowed mistakes to become entrenched and prevented the acrimonious atmosphere that developed in the early phases of negotiations from lifting. The ‘reset’ that was made possible under Boris Johnson’s leadership has been largely about the Prime Minister’s personal capacity to persuade his own Eurosceptic colleagues of the authenticity of a deal considerably more hard-line than they themselves had ever dreamed could be possible.

The EU institutions have also evolved during these four-and-a-half long years, with some significant personnel changes along the way. They too have played a hand in the combative nature of the discourse around the negotiations, and have, at times, over-leveraged their position as the larger party – to the detriment of the constructive tone of ‘partners’ and ‘equals’ that was needed.

The fact is, the loss of one of its most significant Member States, and financial contributors, is a significant – if not existential – crisis for the European Union. Just as a radical decision to pursue an economic and geopolitical revolution was a decisive turning point for the United Kingdom, and a project in which the support and goodwill of our largest trading and neighbourhood security partner would be fundamental. The amount of energy that has been expended on both sides, wrangling over ‘who had more to lose’ has missed the point: there has never been any question about the need for a productive, and close, relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

It is troubling that, with only a matter of weeks to go until the transition period expires, both sides remain locked in this unhelpful paradigm – although the foundational awareness of the urgency around securing a deal appears to have been solidified on both sides over recent months. Neither the EU’s relative preparedness for a No Deal outcome, and the UK’s relative lack of preparedness, should be seen as emblematic of any diminishment of the risks at stake. Despite the upheaval on all sides during the past four-and-a-half years, not least of all the catastrophic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of a fundamental interruption into one of the most seamless and interdependent international supply chains remains profound.

We are still very much in the tunnel, but we need to start getting ourselves ready for a new chapter. The deal the UK and EU are working towards may ultimately prove quite ‘thin’, and while nobody is enthusiastic about an endless cycle of negotiations, it is plain to see that both sides will need to continue to evaluate and evolve their relationship for many years to come. It would be wise for both sides to finish the transition period with a clear statement of mutual intent to that process, and to work hand-in-hand on many of the issues where there is a mutual value, and interest, in coordination.

This commitment to proximity would not be about weakening the sovereignty of either side, nor sanctity of the decision made by the British people to leave the European Union. It is about taking the heat out of a conversation that has become unnecessarily fractious, at a time when both sides need to be focusing more on the forest and less on the trees. As we take our first steps out of the transition period in January, we will be entering a geopolitical context that is starkly different to the environment in which the decision to leave the European Union was made.

Although the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States bears little consequence for the immediate nature of the negotiations themselves, his Transatlantic strategy – designed to counter some of the damage inflicted under the outgoing President’s leadership – will now cast a spotlight on relations between the UK and the EU. This focus on strengthening cooperation and fostering a common sense of purpose within the European neighbourhood reflects the rising threat posed by the increasingly belligerent and aggressive tactics of Russia and Turkey, and the broader global challenge precipitated by the economic and geopolitical ambitions of the authoritarian Chinese state.

There is no doubt that it will be more comfortable terrain for this government to pursue bilateral relationships, especially with President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, or either successors, and it is likely we will be hearing more about the ‘E3’ moving forward. The framework of NATO, at once a very European and not very European Union project, will also appear as a less politicised pathway for UK engagement in the region.

Yet, although the EU has long struggled to crystallise its ambitions as a foreign policy actor, and practical challenges still remain, these conversations are taking on a renewed impetus under the leadership of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Despite its evident eminence as an intelligence, research and security partner, the United Kingdom cannot ignore the fact that the EU will be seeking to better internally coordinate its policies on China, Russia, energy and technology security, and climate change, moving forward. Issues and events will likely arise in which the collective power of its voice, if meaningfully mobilised, could prove significant. With the carrot and stick of renewed buy-in from the United States, some genuine progress could be made.

Emotions have been running high over the past few years, but both sides now need to look frankly at our geographical realities. The UK shares a significant stake in the success of the European Union, and the European Union shares a significant stake in the success of the Brexit decision. I have always felt that we will be able to judge the confidence of the Brexit project at the moment at which the United Kingdom feels at ease in speaking warmly about the European Union, and I believe this is true on both sides. Many mistakes have been made, in tone and substance, during these negotiations. It is time, finally now, to throw off the shackles of this bruising period and look to the future with open hearts and clear minds.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.