Making social science accessible

28 Mar 2023

Europe

UK-EU Relations

UK in a Changing Europe is launching a quarterly UK-EU relations tracker to assess relations between the UK and EU, as well as relationships between the UK and EU member states.

Cleo Davies and Sophie Stowers outline the contents of the first edition, which covers January to March 2023, highlighting the thawing in relations between the UK and the EU that has taken place over the period.

On 27 February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen announced the Windsor Framework at a congenial joint press conference. Days later, the Prime Minster travelled to Paris for the first France-UK bilateral summit since 2018. There are hopes on both sides that we are headed for a ‘reset’ of relations between the UK and its European partners.

What better moment to launch the new UK in a Changing Europe tracker on the UK-EU relationship. Released quarterly, it is intended to provide an overview of the state of political relations between the UK and the EU. We define this broadly as not just formal interactions with the EU itself (including within the committees established by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and Withdrawal Agreement), but, more broadly, the UK’s bilateral relations with member states.

The first iteration is a snapshot of developments between the two sides over the past few months. It covers evidence of the warming of relations, which has included several bilateral agreements with EU countries, positive reactions to the announcement of the Windsor Framework from member states, and developments in British politics that may affect the relationship in coming months.

In terms of the latter, the Sunak government’s change in approach to the EU has built  on the more conciliatory tone adopted by Liz Truss during her short tenure as Prime Minister. This government’s attitude to the negotiations that led to the Windsor Framework was arguably more pragmatic than that of either Boris Johnson or Theresa May, with Sunak willing to compromise on the continued application of EU law within Northern Ireland. Brussels was compelled to reciprocate and made concessions to the UK government on rules for checks on goods set to stay in Northern Ireland.

We have also seen overtures from both sides on closer cooperation in numerous policy areas, from sanctions against Russia, energy security and trade, to the UK’s participation in Horizon, the EU’s programme for funding research.

More widely, an ongoing dispute on the rights of EU citizens in the UK has been quashed, with the UK agreeing to implement the High Court’s judgement on Settled Status. This suggests we will continue to see more cordial cooperation on areas that are governed by the existing formal agreements between the UK and the EU.

The appetite for closer cooperation with European partners is also reflected in the Integrated Review Refresh 2023, published mid-March. We see a marked shift in tone from the original document published in 2021, with the government warmly welcoming the European Political Community, and being much more explicit about the UK’s desire for cooperation with the EU and bilateral relationships with member states.

Said member states have become more receptive to working with the UK on areas of significance to the relationship. In recent years, given issues surrounding the implementation of the Protocol, some governments have been prepared to only sign limited bilateral declarations with the UK. The resolution of the Windsor Framework means that we may see more detailed agreements; initial signs suggest member states are now less hesitant about cooperation with the UK.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the bilateral agreement signed at the UK-France summit in March. The resultant Agreement reiterates, reinforces and enhances cooperation established in pre-existing treaties and international agreements – and in some cases, goes beyond them, as is the case with Franco-UK efforts to combat illegal migration. Again, this is a marked contrast to recent times. Only eighteen months ago, France withdrew an invitation to the then-Home Secretary to attend a meeting in Calais over small boats because of ongoing political tensions.

So, where do we go from here? Firstly, it’s important to note that this is a gradual process. Many provisions in the Windsor Framework will be rolled out incrementally over the next two and a half years until mid-2025.

But preliminary signs point to more meaningful cooperation and openness from Westminster; a majority of MPs voted in favour of legislation on the Stormont Brake in late March. The predicted backlash from the European Research Group to Sunak’s deal materialized, but had little impact, suggesting hard-line Brexiteer MPs no longer majorly affect parliamentary arithmetic – the disbanding of the collective’s WhatsApp Group, used to coordinate many a rebellion in 2019, is  perhaps an initial sign of this.

Yet there are some issues which could impinge on the good intentions outlined in the Framework and various joint bilateral agreements and declarations. Most obvious is the ongoing situation in Stormont. The DUP expressed its opposition to the Protocol, which suggests that restoring power sharing in Northern Ireland will not be a straightforward process, and the Assembly may not be restored any time soon. Ongoing discussing about the technical implementation of new rules on goods and data sharing in Northern Ireland will also give the DUP plenty of opportunity to demonstrate its opposition to Sunak’s deal.

And though relations between the UK and EU have thawed, there are still points of contention. Sunak is hesitant about the cost of participation in Horizon Europe, for one. There is also the continued progress of the Retained EU Law Bill through Parliament, which could see thousands of pieces of EU legislation disapplied in the UK by the end of the year.

The EU will be concerned about any resulting divergence breaching the level playing field provisions of the TCA, and has already raised concerns about the uncertainty the Bill causes in UK-EU relations.

This is in addition to the possibility that the UK may legislate in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, alongside the EU’s opposition to the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, could stoke tensions between the two sides on migration and citizens’ rights.

But overall, it’s hard to avoid the impression that this is a big moment for UK-EU relations. Outstanding issues have been resolved, and both sides seem keen to build on existing agreements via compromise and closer cooperation. It’s difficult to say how far we will see this go in practice, with hesitations about the cost implications of projects like Horizon and EU concerns over potential divergence possible stumbling blocks. However, deliberately frosty relations between the two sides seem to be a thing of the past.

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 Sophie Stowers, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe.

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