Ahead of a major conference on UK-EU relations in the Sunak era, Simon Usherwood takes stock of the relationship and how it is now being managed.
Brexit is not what it used to be. Cast your mind back to 2018 and 2019 and it seemed that everyday brought a new crisis in either the negotiations between the EU and UK or (more often) in Westminster itself.
However, with the conclusion of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in 2020 a substantial amount of heat went out of the debate, even if the question marks over the Johnson government’s commitment to its treaty obligations did provide periodic clashes, domestically and with the EU.
The signing of the Windsor Framework in early 2023 seemed to underline this shift, with the fifth post-referendum Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looking to remove those question marks, draw a line under the previous seven years and develop more of a working relationship.
But what can we say about this new stage in the Brexit process? How different is it from what came before, if at all? And what might it tell us about where the relationship is heading?
The framework of relations
The most useful starting point is with an appreciation of the differences between the WA and the TCA themselves.
The Withdrawal Agreement focused on management of issues related to the UK leaving the EU. That meant focusing on specific policy areas, largely time-bound (the Protocol on Northern Ireland notwithstanding), with a consequent need to get substantive content agreed within the text. The EU was focused on making sure that this first treaty would pin down as much as possible before the UK left.
By contrast, the TCA deals with the future relationship and so is a much more open-ended text, setting up spaces for work down the line and often noting topics that might be resolved later. The very brief period available for negotiating the treaty in 2020 further reinforced this pattern.
As a result, the TCA is driven much less than the WA by a need to secure effective implementation of commitments, since it deals with matters that are ‘nice to have’ rather than essentials.
This is reflected by the shifting patterns of UK-EU meetings under both treaties. As can been seen in our tracker of meetings since 2020 (see figures), once the initial flurry of sub-committees in the WA had passed – reflecting the need to provide further operationalisation to treaty commitments – we have settled into a much slower rhythm of interactions. The TCA’s governance framework was particularly slow to get started, especially its advisory bodies, suggesting that substantive negotiations through this framework have been limited.
Figure 1: Meetings of the bodies of the Withdrawal Agreement. For a PDF version click here.
Figure 2: Meetings of the bodies of the Trade & Cooperation Agreement. For a PDF version click here.
Just as the treaty context has changed, so too has the internal management of relations on both sides.
Under Boris Johnson, more or less all aspects of Brexit policy management were centralised in the Cabinet Office under Lord Frost. This included not only direct interactions under the WA and TCA, but also implementation of the new arrangements for all of the UK’s border and the maximisation of ‘Brexit opportunities’ across government.
Currently, only the border implementation work remains in the Cabinet Office, with the Department for Business and Trade picking up what still exists of the Brexit Opportunities Unit. If there is a central coordinating body, then it is now the Foreign Office, which has built up capacity to triage WA/TCA activity across Whitehall, while also being the contact point for direct relations. This relocation to the Foreign Office highlights how EU relations are now seen as been comparable to those with every other part of the world, rather than a special case.
On the EU side too, there has been change.
The groups established after the 2016 referendum in the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament were all characterised by their proximity and access to the highest levels of decision-makers and by very close interactions with each other.
Following the entry into force of the TCA in 2021, these groups were reconstituted into more technical bodies, broadly akin to those that exist for other third-country relations, albeit while remaining the responsibility of more senior officials. While the Commission’s Service for the EU-UK Agreements, the Council’s Working Party on the UK and the Parliament’s UK Contact Group all still provide an institutional focus within the EU, it appears that they have moved on from the highly politicised work of 2016-20.
What this all means
It is that fall in politicisation – across the board – that is perhaps the key feature of this new period in relations.
To a considerable extent, Brexit has moved from being Chefsache to something managed by multiple individuals at the next level down in seniority. The original framing of Brexit as an upheaval of the political order (on the British side) and as an existential challenge (for the EU) necessarily pushed the matter up to the very highest levels of political decision-making. But with the immediate critical questions tied off in the WA, and with the belated British acceptance of these via Windsor, the need to mobilise and engage so much resource appears much less.
One consequence of this is that there is arguably less gatekeeping on either side of the relationship too. The shift from basic choices over what type of relationship to have into more minor and technical questions of how to make the WA/TCA system work is seen in the new management systems on both sides, each of which give more opportunity for other interested parties to articulate their needs and interests.
This also means that ever more of the substance of Brexit is becoming internalised into other policy domains. As the UK continues to work through its choices post-membership, so UK Departments and Commission Directorates-General are drawn into technical discussions about what to do and how to do it.
All of this change suggests that there will be more scope for technical and technocratic fixes to address emergent issues between the parties, e.g. batteries for electric vehicles. The trade-off is that the TCA framework itself becomes more baked-in and the emphasis will be more on making the most of the opportunities and options therein than on making big shifts in arrangements.
By Professor Simon Usherwood, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.