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16 Sep 2022

A Changing EU

In her annual State of the Union address on 14 September 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, gave her full backing for the creation of a new European Political Community. Echoing the calls of speeches given throughout the summer by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, she declared ‘that there is a need to reach out to the countries of Europe – beyond the accession process’. This would include Britain. But will Britain engage?

The arrival of Liz Truss as Prime Minister looks set to be a potential turning point in UK-EU relations. Which way she will turn is not yet fully known. But with her premiership predicted to be a crisis-ridden one – from soaring inflation, the climate crisis and NHS woes to name just a few – the pros and cons of the UK collaborating within a European Political Community would be worth wisely weighing up.

The EU’s State of the Union address provided little detail beyond what we already know about the proposed European Political Community, which is that it would provide a political – and not institutional – forum for European countries and EU member states to collaborate together on areas of interest and resolve issues of pressing concern.

Connecting the European Political Community with Queen Elizabeth II, Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged that she ‘always reminded us that our future is built on new ideas and founded in our oldest values’. Intrinsic to the European Political Community is democracy, rule of law and the international order that promotes peace, security, justice, and economic progress.

Prior to the Russia-Ukraine war the EU had already ‘entered a stage of post-crisis pragmatism’. But as the emergency of war on the European continent instigated the EU’s own ‘geopolitical awakening’, a new European Political Community is intended to strategically tighten the EU’s foreign policy agenda whilst protecting democracy within Europe.

There are several reasons why the European Political Community idea has come about now.

Firstly, there is an urgent need to offer immediate benefits to prospective EU member states such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkans who would otherwise have to undergo a long waiting game to gain EU membership. This is particularly pertinent to prospective members who are seeking to signal to Russia that they firmly align with EU values.

Secondly, it could ease tensions that will likely arise when EU treaty change gets underway in a new European Convention (as confirmed in the address). Implementing the proposals from the first-ever Conference on the Future of Europe via treaty change whilst launching a government-led European Political Community could lessen the ‘politics’ behind EU institutional change and push it into the new and potentially more politically constructive forum.

If there had been a citizen-led Conference on the Future of Europe and a separate political forum in the early 2000s, might it have avoided the challenges associated with the 2004 EU Constitutional Treaty and subsequent rejection by Dutch and French voters?

Thirdly, after a divisive and uncertain relationship between the UK and EU since the 2016 Brexit referendum, it would be a way of bringing the UK into the EU’s wider political tent without having to be a signed-up member to the institution the UK voted to leave.

A critical point of tension is the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill; a piece of legislation that Truss herself instigated. With news that the UK has told the EU it will continue delaying customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the EU has sought to ‘work intensively and constructively’ to avoid a trade war.

The EU also recognises that the UK also shares similar short and long-term challenges as her European neighbours, and a European Political Community is being pitched as the most constructive – and non-constitutionally binding – forum to resolve them together.

So where does the UK currently stand on a new European Political Community?

As Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss asserted that the UK would not be interested in joining. Now that she is Prime Minister with a wider remit of responsibilities, will she change her mind? With a meeting between European leaders scheduled for 6 October she has until then to decide. Careful consideration must be given to the short and long-term impact of her response. The impasse with the EU must somehow, at some point, be overcome for the benefit to both the UK and EU.

Recent polling indicates that 54% of UK voters would now vote to join the EU whilst only 46% would back staying out. A closer look reveals that on issues such as the cost of living, the economy and the UK’s influence in the world, a clear majority of people think Brexit has made the situation worse. It is clear from these findings that action must be taken.

Truss stated in June that she was not receptive towards the idea. This is because of greater priority being placed on strengthening NATO and nurturing the G7 as a key alliance. Despite this, it would be a strange move in the long-run if the UK outright ignored the potential offerings of the European Political Community.

There is also the generational divide to consider. Younger people are more receptive towards a strong UK-EU relationship.

As some prominent supporters of Brexit are fond of saying, the UK left the EU, not Europe. A willingness to be involved in, or at least to join a conversation about, a new European Political Community would demonstrate that the UK government’s rhetoric is in sync with reality.

By Joanna George, Research Fellow at The Constitution Society and a former Research Associate at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge.

Joanna is also co-author with Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston of an upcoming chapter on ‘The European Union and the British Constitution’ (Sceptical Perspectives on the Changing Constitution of the United Kingdom, Hart Publishing 2023).

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