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UK-EU Relations

13 Dec 2023

UK-EU relations in the Sunak era: conference round-up

Conference report: ‘UK-EU relations in the Sunak era’, British Academy, London, 9 November 2023

Leading academics and practitioners met to assess what has changed in UK-EU relations since Rishi Sunak became prime minister in October 2022.

In his opening keynote, Fabian Zuleeg from the European Policy Centre, discussed how the relationship is viewed in Brussels against the background of the Windsor Framework and UK-EU cooperation on Ukraine. Although he noted the marked improvement in relations, he also highlighted the limits on future cooperation and identified several challenges ahead. With improved relations, he argued that UK-EU relations have dropped off the political agendas of member states, which is likely to create difficulties in the future. Jill Rutter, UK in a Changing Europe and Institute for Government, was the chair. Watch the keynote here.

In the first panel of the day Hussein Kassim, Senior Fellow and University of Warwick, and conference convenor, also noted a normalisation of relations since agreement on the Windsor Framework, but underlined that, in the light of the UK’s continuing adherence to its red lines, major changes were unlikely. Cleo Davies, Senior Research Fellow on ‘Living with the Neighbours’, and University of Warwick, discussed the bilateral declarations or memoranda creating strategic dialogues that the UK has signed with nearly all the EU27. While they reflect significant diplomatic effort, the texts are limited by member states obligations to the EU and cannot substitute for the dense interactions that the UK enjoyed routinely as a member state. Simon Usherwood, Senior Fellow and the Open University, pointed to the change in the political climate, but suggested that neither the current prime minister nor the winner of the next election could or would be able to do much to improve the relationship in a fundamental way. Lisa Whitten from Queen’s University Belfast described what has and has not changed in Northern Ireland since the Windsor Framework was agreed. She reported results from a new opinion poll, which showed majority support for the agreement, alongside continued intense opposition from a substantial minority. Jill Rutter chaired the session. Watch the video here.

The second panel reported the views from key national capitals. Pauline Schnapper, from La Sorbonne Nouvelle, outlined how Paris sees the relationship, and Nicolai von Ondarza, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, described how UK-EU and UK-Germany relations were viewed by Berlin. While the relationship between London and Paris is strong, there is a marked lack of political engagement between London and Berlin. Declan Keller, Ireland’s former Permanent Representative to the UK, reflected on the improvement in relations, but emphasized the challenges that remain, including the need for the UK to work on deepening trust with its bilateral partners. Hussein Kassim chaired the session. Watch the video here.

UK views concerning the relationship were considered in a roundtable, where Rafael Behr from the Guardian, and Jill Rutter, examined the political constraints that apply to the current prime minister and that are likely to persist after the next election. Nick Heath, Head of Europe Strategy and Expertise Department, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, discussed the UK’s approach to EU relations. The session was chaired by Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe, and King’s College London. Watch the video here.

Developments in foreign policy, defence, and security were considered by Jamie Shea, former NATO Deputy Secretary General, Patricia Lewis, Chatham House, Lord Ricketts, and Richard Whitman, UK in a Changing Europe Senior Fellow and University of Kent. Ukraine, NATO-EU cooperation, military cooperation with a number of states, and the possible development of the European Political Community were all topics of discussion. The session was chaired by Anand Menon. Watch a video here.

A fourth panel assessed across a range of policy areas whether there is evidence of regulatory divergence. Andreas Stephan, University of East Anglia, discussed the UK’s new subsidy regime, which he compared to the EU’s rules for controlling state aid and the recent developments on green subsidies. Scott James, King’s College London, reflected on developments in financial services. Viviane Gravey, Queen’s University Belfast, discussed the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) and whether the UK is likely to align with the EU. Catherine Barnard, Senior Fellow and University of Cambridge, reflected on changes in UK immigration rules and the position of EU citizens in the UK. Anthony Froggatt, Chatham House, spoke on energy, where the UK has strong strategic interests in retaining close relations with the EU. Sarah Hall, deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe, and University of Cambridge, chaired. Watch a video here.

In the closing roundtable, Sir William Cash, Dame Julie Smith, and Lord Wood of Anfield clashed over the impact and significance of Brexit, the role of parliament, and the importance and effectiveness of scrutiny in the House of Commons and House of Lords post-Brexit. Simon Usherwood was in the chair. Watch the video here.

Photos credit: David Tett.

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