The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

07 Jun 2023

Relationship with the EU

This keynote speech was delivered by The Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP at the UK in a Changing Europe Annual Conference. Check against delivery. 


Not to beat about the bush, I think the United Kingdom is the best country on earth. From being home to the mother of all parliaments, to our values of tolerance, generosity and support for the vulnerable, today the UK punches well above our weight on the global stage.

We do have some superb home advantages;

  • We speak the world’s international business language,
  • We enjoy a shining example of an impartial justice system,
  • We are home to the greatest financial services sector on the planet
  • We host 3 of the world’s top ten universities
  • We are a proud member of a commonwealth of 54 sovereign nations, as well as being one of the Five Eyes Intelligence group, a key member of NATO, and having a seat on the Permanent UN Security Council.

In the years leading up to the referendum on EU membership in 2016, there were two totally legitimate, but alternative paths for the UK to choose in its approach to international relations, and our future on the world stage.

One was as a core member of a reformed EU, focused on strong unity in key global issues, but with a much greater respect for national sovereignty when it came to the wellbeing and direction of a nation’s citizens.

The other was for a future outside of the EU, focused on both existing friendships and new relationships across the world, but where the buck would stop with our nationally elected government.

It became increasingly clear during 2016 that despite a valiant attempt at pitching EU reform by prime minister David Cameron, that ideal relationship with the European Union was not going to be attainable. The EU wanted ever closer union, something that the UK had resisted throughout our 43 years of membership.

It was this realisation that pushed me, many other parliamentarians, and millions across the country towards advocating for a new path outside the EU, retaining a close and cooperative friendship with our closest neighbours.

Now they say that a week in politics is a long time …

Well, many of the now 363 weeks since our country voted to leave have in each case felt like a lifetime! To begin with, weeks were filled with the questions of when will Brexit happen? Then weeks of why we had got such a rubbish deal? Then, more recently, countless weeks of what on earth was the point in the first place?

It won’t surprise you to hear that I have never shared that pessimism.

From campaigning for the UK to leave the EU, to serving in government during times of huge political division about how Brexit would happen, to helping shape the journey towards the Brexit legacy, I have always believed UK has a new opportunity to be a global force for good.

I’m going to explain that it’s not just good the for the UK, but it’s also good for the European Union. I want to explore the challenging reality that the world is fundamentally changing, and that recent global shocks and the underlying concerns of climate change and mass migration will have lasting consequences that we must all work together to address.

How it has been good for the UK

But first, has Brexit been good for the UK?

Many saw leaving the EU as a practical way to avoid burdensome regulation, free movement, and additional cost. But for me, and for many others, it was about a more philosophical consideration of the vital importance of being able to make our own decisions about the governance of our nation.

Nevertheless, the big challenge from those who regret Brexit is always “what was the point of it?”, so I am going to set out just a few of the tangible benefits that have come since we left the EU.

There are countless excellent examples I could flip through – from cheaper sparkling wine to better protection of our fishing waters, but here are just five.


Number one is Trade. There was a great amount of work and energy put into securing the rollover of more than 60 trade deals the UK had access to as an EU member. These deals were a powerful benefit of the bloc, and we have been able to roll over all but three.

In some cases, such as Japan, Singapore and Ukraine we have improved the breadth and benefits of these deals, and we are in negotiations to enhance our deals with Canada, Mexico, and Israel.

And since we are no longer committed to future billions in contributions to EU budgets, these improved free trade deals come without the significant cost of EU membership.

And, we haven’t just maintained and improved deals we were part of before; we have now able to pursue entirely new ones including the trade deals recently signed with Australia, and with New Zealand – two economically and culturally important partners.

And a big win is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, (the CPTPP), which we formally joined at the end of March. This deal means that 99% of UK goods exported in the CPTPP that includes a population of more than half a billion, will now be tariff-free.

We will have powerful access to the Indo-Pacific region, where 60% of the world’s population lives, and where more than 50% of global economic growth is expected to come from in the coming decades.

Being the first European nation to join this 11 trillion-pound trading bloc is a direct benefit of leaving the EU and demonstrates how the agility of being a single sovereign nation allows us to tap into dynamic and expanding markets far earlier and faster.

And all the hard work we have done on trade means that we have risen up the Trade Barrier Index list from eighth place as a member of the EU, to now fourth place.


The second major benefit is our international soft power. Many said that leaving the EU would damage this, that we would slide into irrelevance on the international stage. That doomsday scenario has not occurred.

The UK has in fact risen in the global ranks of soft power and is now second only to the United States. Soft power is a crucial tool for any modern liberal democracy. It’s the ability to influence and persuade, rather than co-coerce through military or economic strength.

To be the highest ranked European state, and second globally after leaving a large trading bloc is no mean feat and shows that progressive British influence globally is on the rise, not the decline.

Our influence, and specifically our leadership has been powerfully displayed during the war in Ukraine. From day one of the conflict, we have not only shown our own unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s defence of its lands, but we’ve also influenced allies around the world to demonstrate their own commitment to peace in Europe.

As the second largest aid provider to the nation, and the largest in Europe, we have shown membership of the EU is not a prerequisite to standing up for the sovereignty of the nation-state, for peace and for freedom in Europe.

Levelling up

Third in my beauty parade is the power of levelling up. It’s true that much positive work was done in the EU to provide grants and subsides to underfunded projects and areas.

But the variety of schemes, the lack of integration they often had with national programmes, and the huge number of bidders made it inefficient, so great project proposals in the UK often lost out.

Additionally, EU rules meant we weren’t always free to pursue the most logical or beneficial national subsidies and funding, stunting our ability to unlock potential across the country.

Our independent policy of Levelling Up much better serves the British people. No longer paying into EU schemes in perpetuity, and without legislative restrictions, we have far more freedom now in how we design our local and national subsides.

The 4.8 billion levelling up fund, and the 2.6 billion UK Shared Prosperity Fund simplify our grants and subsides policy, and will deliver real, meaningful development in a way that just wasn’t possible within the EU – from the 10 Freeports, to Trade and Investment Hubs, to theatres, science and engineering labs, Levelling Up in a sovereign Britain will be transformative.

Environment and animal welfare

Fourth, leaving the EU has allowed us to go further and faster on environmental protections and animal welfare standards, and even on food labelling.

Our world leading Environment Act creates a powerful new framework for environmental protection, with independent powers to ensure the government keeps pledges made under the framework, as well as with clear legally binding targets for environmental improvement.

The reduction of VAT on green energy such as solar panels and heat pumps would simply not have been possible within the EU.

And the Agriculture Act, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, has removed red tape, and lets us reward farmers and land managers who protect the environment, produce healthy food, and improve their animal welfare.

On animal welfare itself, we have banned the export of live animals for fattening and slaughter, legislated to recognise animal sentience, and we’re exporting our high animal welfare standards globally by building them into trade policy and pressing for them in WTO rules, where we once again have a seat as an independent trading nation.

Alongside this, Parliament is considering bans on the sale of fur, shark fins and traditionally made foie gras, as well as the import of animals killed for trophies.

To be clear, none of these polices would have been achievable on a national level within the EU, certainly not at any reasonable pace. Post-Brexit Britain has raised expectations for what is necessary and possible.

Research and life sciences

And a fifth Brexit benefit, is our success in the research and life sciences sectors. We have long been a powerhouse for cutting edge scientific research – hosting the European Medicines Agency while in the EU, and being a leading participant in Horizon, the EU’s main science research organisation.

Our work in the space sector leads in Europe, including Launch UK which is helping to grow our small satellite and sub-orbital flight market.

Since leaving the EU, our life sciences are driving superb innovation. The development of COVID vaccines in the UK was world-leading, and the AstraZeneca vaccine has and will continue to protect millions of lives.

Alongside developing the vaccine, it was the rigour and pace of our vaccine authorisation through our newly formed British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which allowed us to safely vaccinate our population more rapidly than neighbouring countries.

This speed of deployment would not have been possible inside the EU.

How it has been good for the EU

I want to turn now to how our departure from the European Union has been good for the bloc itself. It is important to recognise that some consider there are few benefits to the EU of Brexit – we were a big part of the European project, and our seat at the table as well as our financial contribution is missed by many.

In the years leading up to the 2016 referendum, I spent a great deal of time with cross party MP colleagues, visiting many EU countries to meet with elected representatives and discussing reform of the EU.

It may surprise you to know that there was a desire from EU colleagues to see reform; from removing the monthly trip to Strasbourg with all its associated costs, to developing a more bespoke farm subsidies system, to introducing a pause on free movement.

But ultimately, what was clear from our trips is that the EU’s goal is ever closer union. It has been on this path for decades, from demands from some for a single tax system and a European army, to the highly valued shared currency and free movement. So, it was always the UK, at meetings of the EU Commission and EU Parliament, that would be pushing against that ever-closer union.

Now that we have left, the EU is free to pursue tighter integration without our reluctance. To be clear, if ever closer union is the will of member states, then the UK will always celebrate and endorse their endeavours.

The UK will always be an avid supporter of the EU, with its vital values of cooperation, democracy, and freedom. The EU may have lost a difficult housemate, but it has certainly gained a friendly neighbour.

And I have myself been fortunate to play a tiny part in building the new relationship between the EU and the UK in a post Brexit world. The trade agreement between us established the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, designed to make recommendations for future trade and cooperation between the EU and the UK. It’s made up half of British MP’s and peers, and half of Members of European Parliament.

Being a member of the PPA has been a real pleasure, working alongside EU colleagues to navigate our future as separate, but mutually important entities.

And there have been challenging periods in our relationship over the past few years, it is also littered with positive moments. The UK providing settled status to EU citizens living in the UK. Trade between the UK and the EU showing positive trends. And the Windsor Framework, finally agreeing a workable solution to an incredibly complex situation that needed real dedication from both sides.

The separation between us and the EU was painful, but I am more confident than ever before that the way forward looks bright for a changing UK in a Changing Europe.

The world is changing …

Turning now to the bigger picture, and in an ever more connected world, any consideration of change must look at how the UK and Europe are influencing and impacted by global change.

From the immense complexity of international supply chains for goods, to the availability of news around the world 24/7, to each of us being only six or fewer social connections away from any other human alive today, our world is far smaller than it used to be.

We share experiences, both positive and negative with citizens of the world, more than ever before. We were painfully reminded of this in the dramatic global shocks of the COVID pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The impact of those two world altering events – a global lockdown from a pandemic on a scale unseen for over 100 years, and the largest attack on European soil since the end of World War II – in such rapid succession is difficult to understate. They both leave wounds from which we may never fully recover.

Starting with the pandemic, COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on trust.

It has impacted our trust in biosecurity, where the fear of another pandemic-like event sits much higher in our individual and collective worries.

It has impacted our trust in leaders’ decision-making processes, and in their word. The diversity in how different countries approached lockdowns, vaccinations, and recovery, and their subsequent analysis will continue to be a topic for academic and public discourse; were the decisions on which countries were safe and unsafe correct? Was closing schools right? Was policy agile enough?

It has impacted some people’s trust in science, and in the establishment, with a dramatic growth in popularity of misinformation and conspiracy theories around vaccination, and restrictions of liberty. International bodies such as the WHO and the UN are viewed with a greater level of scepticism among the public than pre-pandemic.

It has also impacted trust in supply chains. Most of us had an understanding that supply chains were complicated, but few of us grasped the true scale of complexity, taking for granted that toilet rolls, and baking flour would be on the shelves when we wanted them.

Covid laid bare how the interconnected system was complicated and powerful, yet surprisingly fragile. We saw how when a worker in China cannot go to work due to draconian local lockdowns, a computer chips shortage prevents production of nearly every electronic device. We saw how connected the food on our shelves was to the fields they were grown in. And we saw prices rise with the dramatic increase in shipping costs as the world scrambled to get back into gear once lockdowns relaxed.

I imagine many thought these difficulties would resolve rapidly after the pandemic, but we have seen that many of the structures from three years ago have still not recovered. Bottlenecks, shortages, and rampant inflation continue to hurt us.

The impacts of Covid were of course unintentional; a consequence of protecting people’s health.

But war in Ukraine impacted supply chains in a different way. From day one, Putin weaponized globalisation- restricting Europe’s access to Russia’s oil and gas and preventing Ukraine exports of vital foodstuffs. This exposed the damaging reality of global supply chains, when in the hands of bad actors.

It has led to a fundamental rethink of our relationship with energy supplies – now, energy sovereignty is paramount.

The 180 degree turn from Russian energy sources towards using reserves, finding alternate suppliers, even cancelling the Nordstrom project, happened at a pace never seen before, and as countries now rightly focus on developing low carbon energy sources at home, it’s unlikely to happen again.

A recent debate in parliament questioned whether we should have interconnectors linking our grid with Europe’s. I would offer caution here – we cannot let the harsh lessons from Russia make us lose sight of who our true allies are, and the importance of continued collaboration with them.

So Russia’s actions have profoundly impacted the direction of globalisation, but there are also grave consequences for Russia’s own future. Up to a million young men have fled the nation, and more than a million others have been sent to the front, to die facing a better equipped, more determined military defending their home nation.

Some saw the recent meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping as a show of Chinese support, but I suspect that the conversations behind closed doors were actually to remind Russia that their fate is now more shackled to China than ever before.

Sanctions, and the condemnation of allies will have lasting consequences on Russia’s economic outlook, but inevitably, a debate has emerged on what should happen next. There are those who think our support should not cease until Ukraine, including Crimea, is once again free, and Putin has his day in the Hague. But others who think now is the time to negotiate, potentially leaving Crimea still annexed, with a few who would even urge surrendering more of Ukraine, for the sake of a cease fire.

I think the Europe can be proud of our leadership in standing with Ukraine, and with allies – old and new – to provide military and humanitarian assistance. As long as Ukraine is determined to defend their territory, I believe we must continue to show positive support, to protect not just Ukrainian sovereignty, but that of Europe itself.

The importance of climate change and mass migration.

So much has changed in a few short years, but even these incredible events are overshadowed by what is surely the biggest threat to our planet, and that is climate change.

When I was Secretary of State for BEIS from 2019 to 2020, I was determined to reset the key mission for the department, expressing our ambition that the UK would lead the world in tackling global climate change. It’s essential for our planet, but it’s also how the UK will make our way in the world in decades to come, with green jobs right across our country and exports around the world.

With few detractors, this leadership mission is now shared by school children, politicians, and voters alike.

Now you wouldn’t think it to see the antics of some eco protestors, but the UK is already a world leader – we have reduced our CO2 emissions faster than any other major developed country since 1990, while tripling our GDP over the same period – remarkable for such a population dense, energy intensive nation.

As energy minister back in 2016, we announced that we would take coal off the grid by 2025, a declaration which at the time was met by huge scepticism and a sharp intake of breath. Yet already coal accounts for less than 5% of electricity production- down from 67% in 1990.

We have shown without a doubt that with clear political direction, decarbonisation is possible whilst improving our standards of living. UK businesses have been far more agile than we expected, and I’m sure this will continue as we decarbonise transport, housing, heavy industry, and manufacturing.

As a banker myself by profession, I’ve always seen the financial sector as the jewel in our economic crown; but I now believe that the green sector could become our greatest asset as we navigate a post-Brexit world. There are already more than 300,000 jobs in UK green industries, and this could rise to over 2 million by 2030 and become truly transformative.

But while the potential of the green economy is a positive game-changer, on the other hand we are already seeing the devastation of climate change. From brutal wildfires in Australia and California, floods in India and Pakistan, and rising sea levels threatening to put nations like Vanuatu underwater, our climate and weather patterns are becoming more erratic and extreme.

And as natural disasters become more frequent, with droughts longer, and floods larger, great swathes of our planet will be increasingly inhospitable.

Without the essentials of food and clean water, and with few economic prospects, millions who were already facing persecution under autocratic regimes are leaving their homes in search of safety and better life chances, and the numbers doing so will only rise as our climate changes.

So, addressing the global challenge of mass migration will need governments across the world to work closely together. Ending the dangerous proliferation of human trafficking and organised crime which has sprung up to exploit both refugees and economic migrants is an urgent priority for developed nations.

Cooperation, on returns policies and on catching and stopping the people smugglers is urgent – the UK and the EU must collaborate more closely on this burning problem.

Concluding remarks

So, to conclude, many see a gloomy outlook for the world. But as an optimist myself, I heartily agree with Winston Churchill when he said;

“There is no limit to the ingenuity of man if it is properly and vigorously applied under conditions of peace and justice.”

Humanity has much to be proud of; absolute poverty is falling, infant mortality and deaths from disease are declining, and innovation in green technology, AI, medicine, and even space exploration is paving the way to us living longer, healthier lives. The commitment of nations globally in declarations at COP’s and other events are starting to bear fruit, not just empty words for political gain, but translating into tangible action and results.

Perhaps then this is the role of Europe and the UK in a changing world, and that is to create the conditions for global ingenuity. To strive for peace and human rights. To invest in science and innovation that saves lives and restores the planet. To support developing countries towards greater prosperity through education, free trade and investment.

The UK has left the institutions of the EU, but remains a key ally and partner within Europe whilst forging ahead with our new global outlook. The EU is now free to pursue its goal of closer union with the certainty of British support and friendship every step of the way.

And the world faces huge challenges that may at times appear insurmountable … but the cooperation and resilience we saw during the pandemic, and in the response to Russia’s invasion prove that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Returning once more to the wisdom of Churchill:

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts”


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