EU-UK relations: Time for a ‘new normal’ post-Brexit

With a trade and cooperation agreement finally in place, the European Union and the UK can now rebuild their broader relationship and focus on shared interests.

Expert comment Published 5 January 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 2 minute READ

Professor Richard G. Whitman

Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe

The resolution of the process and terms of the UK’s departure from the EU finally ends what has been an intense preoccupation for both sides since June 2016, characterized by considerable domestic political dislocation in the UK, paralysis in its parliamentary politics, and a shock to the political psyche of the European integration process.

Despite this being a largely parochial affair, negotiations on Brexit and the future relationship engendered a real concern to preserve unity among the 27 member states, and the extent to which the EU and the UK actually share the same geopolitical and geo-economic challenges was a notable absence from the talks.

Now those talks have concluded, the EU and its member states have yet to collectively exercise much imagination in considering how they might want to cooperate with the UK on major international issues with the UK now effectively becoming a ‘third country’ in any discussions.

So far the EU27’s ambitions have been limited to offering nothing more than its standard anodyne third country arrangements, which provide neither meaningful consultation or substantive joint action on foreign and security policy. For its part, the UK has been stymied in formulating a coherent post-Brexit European strategy because its position in Europe’s political economy remained unsettled while the terms of the future trading relationship were undetermined.

The costs and benefits to the UK economy created by the new trading terms will remain disputed for some time to come, and a full evaluation of the economic effects may have to wait for up to a decade. But the broader political consequences of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement are more easily discerned.

The EU has lost a member state and a precedent is now set for how to unravel the obligations of membership, while a new style of EU trade relationship with a neighbouring state has been established, one which is not based on the ambition of closer integration with the regulatory framework of the EU single market. The ‘UK-style’ relationship can be added to the growing list of alternative models for EU membership, alongside the Norwegian/EEA, Swiss, and Ukraine-style (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) relationships.

For the UK, Brexit triggered new fissures as the politics of nationalist movements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were infused with a new rationale for succession from the United Kingdom to facilitate them each regaining their own membership of the EU. And the Boris Johnson-led UK government has been forced to accept the UK’s own internal market cannot operate uniformly across its territory.

As Northern Ireland embarks on its own relationship with the EU’s single market, using different market regulatory processes from the rest of the UK demarcated by a ‘paperwork’ border in the Irish Sea, its already-distinctive status within the United Kingdom – thanks to the Good Friday Agreement - will deepen.

Meanwhile, the push for independence in Scotland appears likely to become an all-consuming political debate on the future of the union of the United Kingdom if, as anticipated, the Scottish National Party uses Scottish parliament elections in May 2021 as a proxy for a new referendum on secession.

At least opposition to Scottish independence may unify a Westminster parliament left bitterly divided over Brexit - both between and within the two main UK political parties. Party political debate in Westminster is now likely to focus on whether to deepen or further weaken ties with the EU, rather than a push for re-entry.

Formal approval of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signals the start of the ‘new normal’ in the EU-UK relationship, and the symbolic nature of finally reaching a formal agreement after all the political turmoil can be a basis for tangible substantive cooperation beyond trade. But there needs to be broader and deeper consideration in London, Brussels, and the EU member state capitals as to the expectations for their future relations.

The UK remains intertwined with the security of Europe and has a significant stake in the continuing stability and well-being of the EU’s single market and the Euro. And the EU has an overwhelming interest in the success of its ‘new neighbour’ in terms of the UK economy, political integrity, and cohesiveness of society.

But the near future should not take the form of a push from Brussels or member state capitals to negotiate further formal agreements on issues excluded from the trade and cooperation agreement, such as foreign policy or defence. There is little appetite from the UK side for fresh negotiations right now, given a strong domestic political imperative to be able to signal the Brexit process has concluded.

However, a mutual interest in the security and stability of each other is apparent in their shared set of international challenges, such as China, climate change, the US commitment to the multilateral international order, the stability of Europe’s neighbourhood, and especially future relations with Russia.

For now, perhaps a shared EU-UK New Year’s resolution is to reflect on their mutual international interests, and to agree that rebuilding a shared automatic reflex for cooperation still serves the best interests of both sides of the English Channel.