The UK and the EU: The Start of a Closer Relationship?

British foreign policy watchers have had plenty to watch in recent weeks. After several years in which Brexit dominated the headlines, it’s striking that most of the foreign policy news is not directly EU-related. From announcements on support to Ukraine to an increase in defence spending, and from an agreement to build UK-designed submarines under the AUKUS framework to, last but not least, a refreshed Integrated Review (on which we have written separately here). Of recent developments, only the Windsor Framework on the Northern Ireland Protocol is primarily focused on UK/EU relations. But can we detect hints of a real change in the relationship from the suite of recent announcements?  

Following the publication of the Windsor Framework on 27 February and the initial controversy over the use of “Windsor” and the role of the King in receiving EU Commission President Van der Leyen during her visit to Britain, it is noteworthy how quickly it has fallen out of the British news. The debate on the Framework in the House of Commons is still a few days away and we await the considered views of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Brexiteer Conservative European Research Group (ERG). While there was a slight rise in Sterling after the announcement, market reaction was muted and investors have shown little interest since, admittedly against a backdrop of plenty of other market news.   

The Windsor Framework should deliver some practical improvements for business and citizens in Northern Ireland, while removing a central area of friction between the UK and EU, potentially facilitating agreements in other areas. It has won broad support: Labour has pledged to vote with the Government and has not sought to open up debate on the detail. But it won’t fully satisfy those Brexiteers and Unionists who reject any difference in treatment between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially the involvement of the European Court of Justice.    

Arguably, the potential for divergent treatment of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is baked into the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 and the Good Friday Agreement, the 25th anniversary of which will be celebrated next month, apparently in the presence of President Joe Biden. The broader concern among Brexiteers is that the continuing role for the ECJ creates a trilemma: it’s only possible to have two of the Windsor Framework, as close a possible union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and complete regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU at the same time. It is the last of the three which is likely to suffer. But this argument is difficult to articulate and even more difficult to gain traction, as the once marginally pro-Brexit electorate appear to have lost interest and to some extent enthusiasm for Brexit, while business and many other stakeholders seem quite comfortable with greater regulatory alignment. Altogether, this goes to explain why this – actually quite significant – Brexit development has, so far at least, not created the fireworks we have seen on multiple previous occasions over the past seven years.

This relatively calm reaction perhaps also reflects the fact that the Government has made clear that it is determined to enact the agreement and that it has the Parliamentary numbers to do so. Potential opponents have so far been reserved rather than outwardly critical. Only former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that he is uncomfortable about supporting the agreement (he left unclear how he will actually vote in the Commons), but even he has caveated his position acknowledging in an (apparently) unscripted line in a recent speech that he accepts responsibility for the deficiencies in the original negotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This all goes to suggest that the Government has the momentum on the issue: it seems highly unlikely that, even once the sceptics have considered their legal advice, they will be able to command enough support to cause Rishi Sunak a significant problem.

Assuming no last-minute crises, will the successful passage through the UK Parliament of the Windsor Framework set the UK and the EU on course for an improved relationship?

The announcement on 13 March of the Integrated Review refresh gives a flavour of what may be achievable. The document is hardly over-loaded with references to the EU. But overall there is certainly a much warmer approach to Europe, and indeed to the EU, than in the original Integrated Review initiated by Boris Johnson.

In particular, the refresh notes:

We will build on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Windsor Framework to enter a new phase in our post-Brexit relationships in Europe. The UK is committed to playing a leading role in upholding the stability, security and prosperity of our continent …. our ambition is to build even stronger relationships with our European allies and partners based on values, reciprocity and cooperation across our shared interests. This includes the EU, with which we seek to work closely in areas of mutual benefit, as we have done in response to Ukraine. The UK will host the next meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) in 2024. “

This definitely reflects a new tone. While the UK’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic security, primarily through NATO, is nothing new, the explicit reference to working closely with the EU is complemented by a strong commitment to the EPC, launched by French President Macron in 2022, as a forum for EU members and non-members to come together. Boris Johnson was sceptical about the EPC, Liz Truss engaged with it during her brief Premiership and now UK hosting of the next meeting is stated as a fact in the Integrated Review refresh. In addition, the UK in July 2022 applied and was successful in being accepted to join the Military Mobility Project under the EU’s PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) framework which is open to non-members.

This all appears to reflect a direction of travel. Since Brexit, the UK has focused on NATO and bilateral relationships in Europe. There is now a greater explicit willingness to work with EU institutions on specific projects where it adds value. But conspicuous by its absence is any reference to seeking to establish formal strategic-level cooperation frameworks with the EU.   At a recent session with the Parliamentary Joint National Security Strategy Committee, National Security Adviser Sir Tim Barrow rejected the idea that there was a need for a formal framework, saying that he was able to do what was needed “working with counterparts as sherpas, in the EEAS (European External Action Service) or … opposite numbers around Europe.” Some commentators have argued that establishing a formal framework should be on the agenda. However, it is unsurprising that Rishi Sunak is in no hurry to provoke another argument with his Eurosceptic MPs, if security experts in Government do not see it as absolutely essential.

It has long been argued that a resolution of the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol would facilitate progress on other issues, such as the UK rejoining the EU’s Horizon research programme. Indeed, immediately after the announcement of the Windsor Framework Presidnt Von Der Leyen declared that the EU Commission were happy to ‘start immediately’ on work towards an association agreement. However, here too Prime Minister Sunak seems reluctant to be seen rushing into Brussels’ arms. Although academics and the CBI have called for the UK to seize the moment to rejoin Horizon, Sunak is reported to be sceptical about the benefits and still keen to explore an alternative approach.

So have we really passed a Brexit high water mark? Quite possibly, though movement is likely to continue slow and cautious, possibly for some time. This side of a general election, Sunak will want to move the UK closer to the EU where it can make a practical difference but without opening up neuralgic fault-lines within his own party which could also threaten to expose his right flank to the collection of parties and figures, most notably of course Nigel Farage, who will be looking for opportunities to present the (Brexit-supporting) PM of going soft the project. After a General Election, a Labour Government (if current polls are confirmed) will likely use the review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in 2025 to move closer to the EU in a number of areas, though quite possibly (depending on the domestic political context) piecemeal in order to avoid a pro-Brexit backlash.   Further moves on foreign policy are also possible in that context. If the Conservatives were after all to remain in Government, it would almost certainly be (a) with a significantly diminished majority and (b) still under Rishi Sunak, so the current cautious approach would likely continue.

Could this trajectory still be derailed by events, leading to a return to the harder line approach and rhetoric pursued by Boris Johnson and, to an extent, Liz Truss?   It’s possible, but unlikely. It is hard to see the constitutional questions of Brexit achieving the “salience” which they have enjoyed over the past 7 years. One issue which most definitely could be is illegal migration – the “small boats” issue on which Rishi Sunak has staked so much and which his opponents from the right will see as a major vulnerability.  But barring major accidents, political divisions in this area ought not to carry across systemically into the wider UK/EU relationship.   

And so, slowly and (sometimes) almost imperceptibly, the UK/EU relationship looks set on a new course. Just don’t expect to hear too much about it.

David Landsman

David Landsman is a Senior Advisor at BFPG