July 15, 2024
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It’s time to reset EU-UK relations

It’s time to reset EU-UK relations

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The writer is a member of the executive board of Bertelsmann Stiftung. Jake Benford, a foreign policy expert at Bertelsmann Stiftung, also contributed

With elections on both side of the channel within the span of a few weeks, one could be forgiven for assuming that change is in the air with respect to the troubled state of EU-UK relations. In truth, of course, the subject hardly featured in the European parliament elections earlier this month. In the UK, too, both Labour and the Conservatives have said less than might be expected on all things Brussels — albeit, one presumes, for different reasons.

Yet the alignment of electoral calendars provides an opportunity to accelerate the current course of guarded rapprochement triggered by successful co-operation in defence of Ukraine and aided by the breakthrough on the Windsor framework on Northern Ireland. So far, Brussels and key EU member states have believed the political ball to be largely in Westminster’s court, as the UK considers its post-Brexit role in international affairs. However, EU members now have a new interest in improving relations with a country that is one of the world’s largest economies, a nuclear power, staunch supporter of Ukraine and an obvious stakeholder in Europe’s security concerns.

The EU in 2024 is not the same as it was in 2016, when the UK voted to leave the bloc. Nor is it the same as it was in 2020, when the terms of Britain’s departure were settled. Significant geopolitical shifts — including the demise of the post-cold war settlement and the possibility that the US will retreat further from its role as guarantor of European security — have profoundly reshaped the EU’s aims and interests, and it is wrestling with the need for new strategies and structures in order to meet them.

In addition to national measures such as higher defence spending, three EU-level responses to this new landscape stand out. First, an increased use of the single market and trading arrangements as geopolitical tools. The EU is pushing a new economic security agenda in the face of systemic rivals. Second, enlargement is back on the table, after years of stalling. And third, there is renewed EU interest in shaping the political architecture of Europe more widely. This would include countries that are unlikely to accede to the EU but which are now part of the European Political Community. As it happens, this new forum’s next summit will be hosted by the UK in July, shortly after the general election.

For the EU, flexibility, coherence and deep ties with like-minded partners will be crucial. This means it has a chance to rethink its approach towards relations with the UK and there is a rare opportunity to shape the continent’s new political architecture together.

A first step would be a joint summit after the UK election to scope out the terrain for broader strategic co-operation on economic, financial and security matters. This could build on the effective relationship that EU members already have with the UK in Nato and the G7. Regular summits of this sort could help to set new priorities.

Crucially, however, problems in the current relationship also need to be addressed. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and UK, signed at the end of 2020, is outdated given today’s challenges. It needs to be refined so as to include the EU’s economic security agenda in the short-term, and deal with the asymmetry of goods trade, which is choking the UK’s economy, in the medium term. There will always be a qualitative difference between membership of the single market and a free trade agreement, but the EU has, in the past, demonstrated openness to different arrangements, provided its overarching interests are protected.

Finally, the struggle to boost the capacity of member states’ defence industries is as much a challenge for the EU, as it is for EU-UK relations. There is still a very strong argument to improve co-operation among member states through the co-ordination and funding mechanisms put in place over the past decade, although on substance they have not delivered much yet. Given the UK’s capacities, and the role of its companies in value chains, it would be highly desirable to improve the rules for third country involvement, even if progress within the EU is only driven by a smaller subgroup of countries. Far-sighted co-operation of this sort could avoid net loss and duplication in programmes that prioritise European security and resilience.

Bringing the UK back into the fold could mean a qualitative leap for the EU as a coherent geopolitical actor. But it always takes two to tango. Decisions made by any new UK government will be observed carefully in Brussels and national capitals, with a close eye on any shifts in attitude towards EU relations.

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