The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

05 Feb 2021

Relationship with the EU

It’s hardly been the most encouraging of starts. Rather than settling down to make their new Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) work, the UK and EU have become embroiled in a series of rows over vaccines and the EU representative in London.

These look set to scar relations for some time to come. More worryingly, both emanate from broader structural forces, meaning there is reason to fear that strained relations might become the new normal.

Like it or not, the two sides are condemned to work together. For one thing, the TCA ensures a continuation of negotiations within the intricate institutional structure created to work out the details its implementation.

Meanwhile, the UK and the EU confront common threats and share vital interests. Effective cooperation is in the interest of both sides.

And yet relations are fraught. The first shots were fired by the British Government, which confected a row by refusing to accord the new EU Ambassador to London the same status as an ambassador from a state.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted that the EU Ambassador should be treated as the representative of an international organization. The EU responded by cancelling meetings between officials and the UK’s new Ambassador.

And then of course a furious row erupted as the news broke that AstraZeneca would be able to supply only about a quarter of the 100 million vaccines the EU was expecting by March.

The European Commission announced a clampdown on vaccine exports, which included provision for the triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol in order to prevent exports of vaccines from the Republic to Northern Ireland.

Again, the fallout was immediate. Arlene Foster of the DUP described the move as an ‘absolutely incredible act of hostility’. Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland Secretary, branded the EU’s initiative as ‘an almost Trumpian act.’

Both episodes will continue to weigh on relations for some time to come. It is hard to see how the UK Ambassador to the EU will manage to carry out his role as long as London withholds full recognition from his counterpart in London.

This is hardly ideal when it comes to effectively managing relations between the two sides.

Meanwhile, the EU’s intemperate triggering of Article 16 will have implications for the ongoing implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

For one thing, it has added fuel to unionist demands that the British Government itself invoke Article 16 to deal with the problems associated with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Tempting though it may be to see these as isolated incidents, there are deeper structural reasons why the two sides have so easily slipped into a cycle of mutual recrimination.

For the EU, the UK is now a third country and competitor. Hence not only its zero-sum approach to vaccines, but also its approach to the recently completed trade negotiations.

One of the major problems when it comes to implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol has been the issue of checks on animal and plant products (sanitary and phytosanitary, or SPS checks in the jargon).

That Brussels was willing to give the UK a far less generous deal than it has with New Zealand bore eloquent testimony to the EU’s attitude towards the notion of having a geographically proximate economic competitor.

Yet insisting on relatively stringent checks between the UK and EU necessitates the same between GB and Northern Ireland. Expect calls for a resort by the UK Government to Article 16 to be redoubled.

And there are other reasons why the EU might adopt a confrontational approach. While the initial fears of attempts to emulate Brexit have dissipated, EU leaders are still anxious to illustrate to their own domestic constituencies that Euroscepticism is no solution to the problems they face.

They remain anxious, in other words, that Brexit does not come to be seen as a success. Attempts by British Ministers to link their undoubted success in rolling out a national vaccination programme with the decision to leave the EU have hardly eased such concerns.

And politics looms large here. It’s interesting to note that a senior British Government figure attributed President Macron’s explosive remark that the AstraZeneca vaccine is almost ineffective for people over 65 to the ‘enormous political pressure’ the French President is under, with Marine Le Pen and Macron polling neck-and-neck ahead of the 2022 presidential race.

Strong defence of the national interest is an obvious tactic for him to adopt in the face of such a challenge.

Not, of course, that politics is absent on this side of the Channel. Boris Johnson triumphed in the 2019 general election by assembling what was in effect a Leave coalition. That coalition is more united when it comes to values than it is on, say, economic policy.

In other words, while conversations over tax policy or the desirable level of national borrowing risk revealing deep divisions among both the Prime Minister’s MPs and their voters, spats with the European Union promise to unite them in delight and approval.

As former Justice Secretary David Gauke has put it, if ‘the Government’s approach to the EU is thoughtful, pragmatic and constructive, this is not going to get the patriotic juices of Workington Man flowing.’

None of this is going to change.

For some in the EU, securing wins over the UK will remain politically advantageous, as will the ability to point to negative impacts of Brexit. For Mr Johnson, EU-bashing will continue to allow him to score political points, while discommoding Keir Starmer, given the tensions in his own party over Europe.

So while we may hope that the current crises can be overcome, we should not kid ourselves. There are good reasons to think that tension between the UK and the EU are not a passing phase, but the new normal.

By Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in the Guardian


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