Cleo Davies and Jannike Wachowiak highlight that UK-EU relations have slipped down the EU’s list of political priorities. Discussions have been left to the numerous technical committees and working groups under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Their technical nature, combined with a lack of prioritisation and coherence at EU level make it difficult to enhance the relationship in strategically sensitive areas.
The latest UK in a Changing Europe UK-EU Relations Tracker can be found here.
Over the summer, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly underlined that the ‘the UK and the EU have committed to maximise the opportunities under the TCA’. Progress has indeed been made in areas previously stalled because of wider tensions in the relationship. After more than six months of negotiations, the two sides approved the UK’s association to the EU’s Horizon and Copernicus programmes. The announcement was a welcome relief for British researchers and research institutions. Delays and uncertainty over the past three years were adversely affecting the sector.
The Windsor Framework is being implemented in stages through to 2025. Consequently, there has been an uptick in meetings of the Joint Committee. On 1 October, the introduction of the green-lane/red-lane system to ease the flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was introduced. However, the Democratic Unionist Party have been clear they will not be pressured into restoring power sharing unless their concerns over Northern Ireland’s position in the Union are addressed.
Whilst relations appear much smoother than previously, not all areas have been tension-free. This summer, the two sides argued over the EU’s use of the Argentinian term for Falkland Islands, and the UK reportedly rejected an EU offer for more strategic dialogue on foreign and security policy.
Moreover, the prospect of tariffs for electric vehicles that source their batteries from outside the EU and UK remains a sticking point. Whilst the UK has called for a three-year delay to stricter local content requirements from 2024, views within the EU are divided. Germany reportedly supports car makers’ calls for a longer delay, whilst France and internal market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, argue a delay would impede the development of an EU battery industry. The Commission is currently considering how to define what counts as locally sourced from the EU. However, the months of gridlock are a salutary warning to the UK that a less cohesive EU position might make it more difficult to agree changes to the TCA.
As importantly, the EU continues to shift its attention and resources to more pressing issues. Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission’s Executive Vice-President responsible for UK-EU relations, recently took over the European Green Deal file in addition to his existing duties. This suggests less bandwidth to think about UK-EU relations, at least at the highest level in the Commission.
This leaves it to the committees under the TCA to monitor and facilitate implementation. Whilst these appear to be running smoothly, a House of Lords’ report earlier this year expressed concerns about the lack of substantive discussion and recommended closer involvement of ministers and commissioners. It also suggested committees should meet more frequently (most meet once, sometimes twice a year). Whilst committee meetings are indeed highly technical, and not a place for deeper political conversations, this framework is consistent with the type of relationship the UK opted for when leaving the EU, namely a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. The EU has created similar structures in its FTAs with third countries like Canada and Mexico. Unlike the former, however, the UK does not hold annual political summits with the EU.
The UK government relies on its network of bilateral relations and international summits to engage politically with European counterparts. Rishi Sunak used recent meetings of the Council of Europe and the European Political Community to push his priority of tackling irregular migration flows. This week the UK government is hosting an international summit on AI. Whilst an opportunity to position the UK as a leader in this field, it bears the risk of being perceived as a duplication or distraction from conversations and legislative developments at EU and US level to which the UK is no longer privy.
Bilaterally, the UK has signed general non-binding agreements with almost all EU member states. In recent months, the focus has shifted to sectoral agreements, particularly on security, energy, and on fighting organized crime around migration. The challenge is to sustain these relations. This can be difficult at the highest political level as the UK is having to spread its resources across the 27 member states.
As the UK and the EU settle into more normalised relations, it has become clear that the UK will require sustained efforts and skilled operators if it wants to influence change and weigh in on broader EU policy direction in strategic areas of interest.