In the second edition of the UKICE UK-EU relations tracker Cleo Davies and Jannike Wachowiak find that improved mood music following the announcement of the Windsor Framework agreement has led to a normalisation in the relationship. There are as yet however few signs of substantive progress in terms of deepening of relations with the EU and member states.
Since announcing the agreement on the Windsor Framework in February 2023, the mood music in the UK-EU relationship has improved. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appear to have developed a trusting relationship. Similarly, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič repeatedly emphasise their good personal collaboration at public appearances. However, warm words only go so far.
The second edition of the UK-EU relations tracker provides evidence of a normalisation of the relationship, less so of a deepening of cooperation. Both parties worked swiftly to roll out the Windsor Framework provisions and adopt the necessary unilateral measures including, in the case of the EU, legislation. The first meetings of the newly created bodies under the framework have already taken place with a first meeting of the Enhanced Coordination Mechanism on VAT and excise in June.
Domestically, the Windsor Framework has not led to the political institutions in Northern Ireland resuming, with the DUP seeking changes. But the agreement has unlocked some of the issues on hold under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The UK and the EU signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on regulatory cooperation in the area of financial services finalised over two years ago. The MoU covers regulatory cooperation and establishes a forum for dialogue. But it does not include equivalence and access to the single market, a point that the European Commission was keen to underline when the MoU was signed.
Finalising the provisions of the TCA for the UK’s participation in Union Programmes, however, is proving a thornier issue and agreement remains elusive. The tropes of past negotiations have reappeared. Whilst stakeholders point out the mutual benefit of an agreement, the UK PM speaks of a deal that works for UK taxpayers. This position risks being perceived in the EU as the UK trying to renegotiate post hoc the terms that were agreed during negotiations in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Specialised Committees under the TCA are up and running and cooperation at technical level is good. As the dust settles post Windsor Framework agreement, the reality of a relationship defined by the TCA is coming into focus. And with it, there have been calls for a closer relationship for facilitating trade and easing mobility, especially in the UK. The Shadow Foreign Secretary spoke in June, perhaps rather enigmatically, of ‘improving the trade deal’. George Eustice, the former environment secretary, has called for a reciprocal visa scheme for under-35s coming from certain EU member states. Industry representatives on both sides are keen to see an extension of the provisions in the TCA on batteries for electric vehicles.
The EU insists on first delivering on what has been agreed in the TCA, referring back to the Joint Partnership Council of March 2023. Maroš Šefčovič has emphasised that now is the time to exploit the ‘full potential of the TCA’ but warned that the TCA ‘is not – and can never be – a replacement for EU membership’.
Meanwhile, the UK continues to formalise its bilateral relations post-Brexit. It has now signed non-binding joint declarations establishing ‘strategic dialogues’ for bilateral cooperation with most member states. In terms of implementation, the annual UK-Portugal strategic dialogue took place in June 2023 whilst provisions for cooperation outlined in other joint declarations are being rolled out. The UK and Italy launched a Joint Strategic Security Committee, foreseen in the MoU signed in April 2023, and the Germany-UK Cultural Commission was ‘revived’ for the first time since 1993, delivering on a pledge in the January 2023 Strategic dialogue. But not everything has materialized. For instance, the much-publicised France-UK joint bilateral declaration in March 2023 included the ambition to facilitate school trips between the two countries but has not yet been implemented.
In discussions with EU counterparts over the past months, the UK has focused on the issue of migration, a major political priority for Rishi Sunak. The UK PM caused some frustration amongst European commentators with his twitter post suggesting the European Political Community summit in Moldova on 1 June was about ‘putting tackling illegal migration top of the international agenda’. But there has been very little ground made on bilateral deals with member states or between the UK and the EU on returning migrants to EU member states. Meanwhile, the EU reached an agreement at 27 on migration and asylum laws early June. Politically, it is not in the interests of the EU or each of the 27 member states to give the UK a deal on what is a very sensitive matter intra-EU too.
Overall, increased trust and better mood music appear to be necessary but not sufficient conditions for building on the existing relationship under the TCA. In the bilateral sphere, the UK will have to commit considerable resource and soft power if it wants to give practical meaning to the array of non-binding agreements it has signed with member states since leaving the EU.
By Dr Cleo Davies, Senior Research Associate on the project ‘Living with the Neighbours: the UK, EU and wider Europe’, University of East Anglia; and Jannike Wachowiak, Researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.