A review of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement is due to start in May 2026. With more attention now being given to what the review might look like, Simon Usherwood and David Moloney outline three paths that might be followed when it comes around.
The conclusion of the Windsor Framework has rightly been taken as a moment for UK-EU relations to reset. As part of that, more attention is now being paid to the review clause of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The provision sets up periodic reviews of this cornerstone treaty between the two parties, the first of which is to start around 1 May 2026 (after five full years of implementation). This has been seen by some in the UK as an opportunity to engage in wholesale renegotiation of relations. By contrast, the EU is pointing towards a much more technical exercise, while others still point to the potential for further tensions.
Given the vagueness of the provision, what actually happens is primarily a function of what the two parties decide to make of it and as a result there is much still to be settled. If the review is to produce anything of substance, then both Brussels and London need to agree on a process and a realistic set of objectives.
Article 776 of the TCA is short and to the point: ‘The Parties shall jointly review the implementation of this Agreement and supplementing agreements and any matters related thereto five years after the entry into force of this Agreement and every five years thereafter.’
It’s a provision that can be found in a number of other agreements concluded by the EU in recent years, such as with New Zealand on data exchange for law enforcement or with the US on Passenger Name Records.
Art.776 is best understood as largely reflecting the increasingly technical nature of provisions and the need for the joining up of numerous national systems and processes. It speaks about reviewing the ‘implementation’, rather than the TCA itself. The terse and generic formulation does not explicitly engage any of the numerous bodies created by the TCA nor require any formal approval or even acknowledgement by the two parties.
All of which is to suggest three logical paths that might be followed when we get to 2026.
The minimalist model is the most obvious, given the comments just made. If it followed the pattern of other agreements, the two parties would engage in no more than a technical check on implementation, underpinned by reports from the various sectoral committees, with a view to addressing any emergent issues and to refining processes.
This approach would be kept away from politicians, except in some final approval through the TCA’s Partnership Council, possibly accompanied by some declarations about actions to attend to whatever procedural or bureaucratic barriers inhibit the implementation of the treaty as it stands.
The possibility of a new Labour government from the next general election has prompted calls for a root-and-branch recasting of relations. The review might, in this maximalist view, become the moment on which that turns. The May 2026 start would come some 18 months into a new UK government, giving them time to organise themselves around a new mandate and to get going on the rest of their manifesto programme.
With some practical demonstration of British good faith and a clearer picture of how an opposition Conservative party moves on the issue, the EU might be persuaded that the TCA review be rolled into a wider reconsideration of relations.
There are however political risks with renegotiations. The EU knows well from the failed decade of negotiations with the Swiss over recasting their relations that even where there are clear logics of organisation or of trade, this does not automatically produce mutually-acceptable outcomes.
The memory of the negotiations with the UK of both the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA itself will also linger long in Brussels, where it was noted that these were difficult not only because of the Prime Minister but also because the UK has its own interests and preferences.
If neither a minimalist nor a maximalist approach feel satisfactory, then a mixed model might seem to square the circle.
Rather than starting with an explicit intention of recasting relations, the framing would instead be one of a desire for broad reflection on how the UK and EU work together. Here the TCA review would become part of the evaluation of what does and does not work and what might be the steps to address that. The door would be left open to negotiations or treaty amendments, but pushed down the line.
However, a flexible and open-ended approach risks creating permanent instability, where each side speaks of wanting to improve things but without both being able to agree on how to do it. With the constant cycle of national elections in EU member states, quite aside from the vagaries of British politics, the ability to find a consensus among the parties would not be high thus leading to a potentially destabilising relationship.
So what will determine whether and how the two sides find a common understanding?
Firstly, the position of whatever British government is in office will be crucial. Is there a clear and reasonable strategy behind its European policy? Is it ready to invest sufficient political capital on an issue that most voters are not that interested in to overcome any domestic opposition? If there is any doubt in EU minds on these points, then there is very little interest in doing anything more than the bare minimum.
Secondly, the position the EU is in itself matters. While the post-Brexit period has seen a big push towards strengthening international trade partnerships and while the invasion of Ukraine has stimulated cooperation on security, that might not still be the case in 2026, especially if all of the obvious actions have already been taken.
And finally, we have to consider the TCA itself. At this stage, it is impossible to make a balanced judgement about its operation, especially given that various parts of it have yet to start operating at all. If the next three years end up with a piling up of problems (as we are starting to see with rules of origin on car batteries, for example) then pressure for a more involved review might build. Conversely, as market operators and politicians adjust to the much calmer post-Johnson world of working together, a low-key approach may prevail.
However it plays out, the bigger message is that it’s only by working together that the two are going to be able to make mutually-acceptable and durable decisions.
By Simon Usherwood, Professor of Politics and International Studies, The Open University and Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr David Moloney, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, The Open University.