Derrick Wyatt looks at what the Sunak Government could do if it wants to forge closer geopolitical links with the EU in the post ‘Windsor Framework’ context.
A week after conclusion of negotiations on the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in December 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the UK would be the “best friend and ally that the EU could have”. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove referred to a “special relationship” with the EU, and expressed the hope that the new trade agreement would see politics moving away from the bitterness surrounding the 2016 referendum.
While the TCA is a thin agreement in trade terms, it sets out a broad geopolitical agenda for future relations between the UK and the EU. They will cooperate wherever possible on ‘current and emerging global issues of common interest’ and aim to coordinate EU and UK positions in multilateral organisations and forums in which they both participate, such as the UN, the G7, the G20, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. A closer political relationship could be based on this framework, along with a more structured dialogue on foreign policy, defence and security. The UK Government needs to mend fences with the EU, and geopolitics, defence and security may provide the opportunity.
There is, however, a potential stumbling block. Promoting any sort of close relationship between the UK and the EU clashes with a strand of Brexiteer narrative that Brexit happened not just because EU Membership was bad for the UK, but because the EU is a flawed and undemocratic project. This view of a malign EU extends to suspicion of the French/German partnership which provides leadership to it.
In an interview which UK Trade Minister Nicholas Ridley gave to the Spectator in 1990 he referred to proposed European Monetary Union as a “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe”. This led to him tendering his resignation to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, though she shared his opposition to a single currency and alarm at the prospect of a resurgent Germany. Boris Johnson used similar imagery to Ridley when in 2016 he likened the EU’s aim of unifying Europe to those of Napoleon and Hitler, and referred to the EU as creating a “massive democratic void”.
When the Northern Ireland Protocol began to cause problems for businesses transiting goods from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland, the EU again became the villain of the piece in the Government’s Brexit narrative. Lord Frost, UK chief negotiator of the Protocol, later said that much of the Protocol had been “forced” on the UK, and that the EU’s application of the Protocol had “destroyed the moral basis of the Protocol.”
Liz Truss, campaigning for the Tory leadership and seeking to win over the Tory grassroots, was undecided whether President Macron of France was the UK’s “friend or foe”, though as Prime Minister she attended the first summit of the Macron-inspired European Political Community, resumed UK/French summit meetings, and declared him “friend”. A negative EU narrative still dogs the Tory Government if it seeks to develop even indirect links with the EU, leading to Liz Truss as Prime Minister trying to change the name of the European Political Community to the less EU-evocative European Political forum.
A recurring theme of the Brexiteer critique of the EU is that it stifles democracy in its Member States through the device of the supremacy of EU law. But the reality is that EU citizens support EU Membership, even in countries where populist governments are in power. One recent survey indicated that in 2020-2022 support in the Member States for remaining in the EU – excluding “don’t knows” – ranged from a low of 70.8% in the Czech Republic to a high of 95.3% in Spain.
If the EU is following a federal path, which is what it increasingly seems to be, it is doing so because that makes geopolitical sense for its national leaders, and because “more Europe” is what EU citizens want.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s approach to working with the EU on improvements to the Northern Ireland Protocol was less confrontational than that of predecessors Johnson and Truss. He negotiated new arrangements dubbed the “Windsor Framework”, which were endorsed by a large majority in the House of Commons, with only a modest rebellion from Tory MPs.
If the Sunak Government seeks closer geopolitical links with the EU and wants to justify those links to its grassroots, it needs to put behind it the negative EU narrative promoted or tolerated by its predecessors. Backbench opinion seems to be swinging in this direction. Andrea Leadsom MP, a pro-Brexit MP popular with Tory Party Members, who supported Liz Truss against Rishi Sunak in the later stages of the leadership election, said recently that “if ever closer union is the will of member states, then the UK will always celebrate and endorse their endeavours”. She added that the UK would “always be an avid supporter of the EU, with its vital values of cooperation, democracy, and freedom“.
One way of showing such support and confirming that the UK’s relationship with the EU is on a new footing would be for the Sunak Government to offer a structured dialogue on foreign policy, security and defence. The Johnson Government excluded this subject matter from negotiations on the TCA, having earlier signalled it would be included. The EU would prefer a binding treaty, and if Labour comes to power it seems likely to get one. As a credible proposal for the here and now a non-binding joint declaration would suit the UK and provide a working framework for consultation and cooperation. It might suit the EU too – it has based cooperation with the USA on a range of issues on non-binding declarations. The Sunak Government would not expect to gain influence over EU policy, and would not give up its own freedom of action, but a structured dialogue based on agreed procedures could build trust and understanding on both sides. In these dangerous times, even modest gains would be worth having.
By Derrick Wyatt, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Oxford.