Cleo Davies and Hussein Kassim look at what might be next for UK-EU relations after the Windsor Framework, highlighting that while the agreement is an important milestone the UK still faces challenges on the path to normalising its relations with the EU.
Provided that there are no unexpected bumps in the road, the Windsor Framework marks a major turn in relations between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. The agreement’s most direct impact will be felt by the people of Northern Ireland, as commentators have pointed out. But the agreement also has wider significance not only for the UK-EU relationship, but for the UK’s bilateral relations in Europe and beyond. Although there is a strong sense that a corner has been turned, it is important to be clear about what opportunities the Windsor Framework may unlock and what constraints remain.
The Windsor Framework has been met by a palpable sense of relief in the EU institutions and national capitals. The UK’s failure to respect the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland – an agreement that it had signed and ratified – soured relations. From an EU perspective, early concerns that the UK had no intention to comply with the Protocol’s terms appeared confirmed when the UK took unilateral action to extend grace periods.
These anxieties grew as London showed little appetite to engage on technical measures to make the Protocol work, and especially when the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill threatened to override the Protocol.
The EU responded by delaying UK participation in EU programmes, including Horizon. The cooperation foreseen by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) was slow, with the committees that were intended to bring the two sides together in regular dialogue meeting only sporadically.
The chill in relations was not limited only to EU institutions. Member countries, including countries considered close to the UK, notably Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands were unimpressed by its failure to implement the Protocol. Until the war in Ukraine, patience with the UK was wearing so thin that a partial suspension of the TCA was mooted.
While some governments, including Germany or Belgium, were prepared to sign bilateral memorandums with the UK, the declarations they agreed were limited in scope and nature to be compliant with the TCA. Some governments chose not to sign such agreements or took their time, conscious of issues regarding the implementation of the Protocol.
There is no doubt the Framework could only have been agreed following a restoration of trust between the two sides. Provided that the agreement is implemented, it is likely that the UK will be allowed access to EU programmes including Horizon – though there are indications that the Sunak government is having second thoughts about the desirability of UK participation.
Some important bilateral relations are also likely to improve. Ireland has emphasised the new opportunities for a British-Irish partnership. Discussions on sensitive issues with Spain on Gibraltar might pick up pace, and some countries, that until now have believed that a bilateral agreement with the UK would send the wrong signal, are likely to review their positions. The timing of the summit between the UK and France was not accidental.
Beyond UK relations with European countries, the Windsor Framework promises to remove a major source of tension with the US. President Biden has continually emphasised the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the need for joint solutions in the case of the Protocol.
Yet, despite the agreement, there are limits on what can be achieved. The Framework still has to be adopted and implemented. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill may quietly disappear, but the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – which could see over 4,000 pieces of UK legislation derived from the EU expire next year – continues to make its way through Parliament.
The EU is watching to ensure that any resulting divergence does not breach the level playing field provisions of the TCA. It has already raised concerns in the TCA committees and argued that the Bill creates uncertainty.
The possibility that the UK might leave the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over the issue of ‘small boats’, could still jeopardise the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA. Both contain commitments to the UK’s continued adherence to the ECHR. The EU has already made clear its view that the government’s Illegal Migration Bill violates international law.
More broadly, the UK’s ultimate vision of the relationship it wants with the EU and what it can achieve, are still in the making. The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 signals an intent to engage with its European counterparts and it welcomes the European Political Community as a ‘new forum for continent-wide cooperation’. But, as the first member state to become a ‘third country’, the UK has no model to follow. Closer formal integration – à la Norway or Switzerland – would be fraught with difficulty. Despite growing cooperation with the EU on energy, the environment, and on Ukraine, the UK will continue to have less influence on EU decisions from its position outside the club. Since the UK is not party to the EU’s discussions on joint military procurement, to take one example, its industry could lose out.
The Minister for Europe Leo Docherty has indicated that the UK would be open to establishing a formal EU-UK summit. At bilateral level, he emphasised he is ‘doing his best’ to build relations with larger and smaller EU member states, although since the TCA provides the overarching framework for relations between EU member states and the UK, the possibilities are limited.
In addition, although the Windsor Framework removes a major source of tension in the UK’s relationship with the US, the UK does not necessarily move up the pecking order. Washington has opened negotiations with the EU in the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act, but has rejected London’s overtures.
The Windsor Framework promises to close one chapter and open another. However, normalising UK-EU relations will remain a work in progress.
By Dr Cleo Davies, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia, and Professor Hussein Kassim, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.