The urgency of a positive dynamic in UK-EU relations

Peter Ricketts | Nov 2021

In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, we were promised that Britain would be leaving the EU but would maintain amicable relations with European countries. That now feels a long time ago. We have discovered that it is impossible to have a distant relationship with Brussels and close cooperation with European capitals. It does not work like that.

The EU member states took a consistent position throughout the Brexit negotiations that their top priority was not relations with London, but the integrity of the EU’s legal order and single market. Although it continues to shock some British politicians, they were unwilling to make exceptions for the UK or to overlook the detail of what Boris Johnson himself signed up to. That remains the case.

I have never believed that European leaders wished to ‘punish’ Britain. But, quite naturally, they put the EU’s own interests first. The fact that relations with Britain do not rank high in European capitals is because they have many other priorities on which London now has no influence. The fact that the EU is constantly in the headlines on this side of the Channel partly reflects the government’s ideological obsession with picking fights in Brussels, and partly the reality that Britain is more heavily dependent on the EU than the other way round, for example on trade and transport links, and is hit harder when things go wrong.

The bad-tempered Brexit has disrupted many long-standing arrangements between Britain and its neighbours well beyond the scope of EU affairs. This is most evident in the tensions over the border in Ireland, for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That we are now in a fishing war with France is because Brexit disturbed the delicate balance between the rights of British and French fishermen in the narrow waters around the Channel Islands. Handling the small boat migrant problem between Britain and France has been made more difficult by Britain’s departure from the EU’s Dublin arrangements, which allowed the return of failed asylum seekers (even though not many were in practice returned). Even within the U.K.’s own constitutional order, Brexit has severely shaken the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland.

The uncomfortable truth is that an effective working relationship between the EU and UK is essential to restoring good bilateral cooperation with our neighbours individually The place to start the necessary reconnecting is in the area of foreign and security affairs. Britain and her European neighbours share a huge range of interests as mid-size democracies defending the same values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Since Britain left the EU, it has found itself closer to the EU on many foreign policy issues than to the US. This was particularly true during the Trump years, on issues from climate and international trade, to handling Iran and Russia. Even under President Biden, Britain and other EU countries were equally caught out by US decisions on the military pull-out from Afghanistan. Britain is now moving closer to Washington on the question of China. But the main threats to British national security still arise in Europe and its neighbourhood, from Russian adventurism to Islamist terrorism and migrant flows from the Middle East.

It is therefore all the more surprising that London refused the EU’s offer during the Brexit negotiations of a structured dialogue on foreign and security policy. The contrast here with law enforcement and justice cooperation is striking. This area is the subject of detailed provisions on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which seem to be allowing a good level of joint working. In foreign affairs, British Ministers have no opportunity to meet with EU Ministers collectively to coordinate positions, for instance on sanctions policy, or to contribute to important debates including over the concept of European strategic autonomy.

The Johnson government have put much store by bilateral cooperation with France and Germany on international issues. The three did good work on Iran while the UK was still a member of the EU. But the scope for them to take significant initiatives in the future will be limited by the fact that France and Germany will be bound by agreed EU positions and will be reluctant to appear to other EU partners as free-lancing with the British.

The conclusion is not hard to draw. There is an urgent need to change the current negative dynamic between the UK and the EU into a positive one. Both sides should step up efforts to resolve contentious issues, dial down the public rhetoric and start to rebuild confidence. This will in turn feed through into bilateral relationships. To take one example, Downing Street have recently been briefing that the Prime Minister wants to re-set the defence relationship with France. That is a welcome ambition, but it will only be possible if a new basis of trust can be established. That in turn will require the Johnson government to stands by their legal commitments with the EU. Getting into a positive dynamic is in everyone’s interest. A rising tide lifts all boats.