UK-Europe relations finally head in the right direction

As relations between the UK and its European neighbours become less contentious, plenty of opportunities exist to build on this positive momentum in 2023.

Expert comment Updated 26 January 2023 Published 24 January 2023 3 minute READ

Relations between the UK and some EU member states have been improving recently and both sides should now invest in these further despite the still difficult, albeit improving, UK-EU relationship.

Until recently, the UK’s difficult relations with Brussels have interfered with its attempts to find new ways of engaging with European partners outside of the European Union (EU) framework.

The new Rishi Sunak-led Conservative government sees little political benefit in antagonistic relations with the EU and there appears to be no more personality clashes between leaders on both sides. This is visible in the constructive approach from both sides in the current discussions between the EU and the UK over potential adjustments to the Northern Ireland protocol, which both sides hope to conclude in the coming months.

Time has also healed some Brexit wounds on the continent, with the UK departure from the EU now simply being accepted as a reality by European interlocutors. This has been helped by the Labour party – the main opposition in the UK – not wanting the basic outline of the UK-EU relationship to change. Even though it proposes closer cooperation and more regular coordination between the EU and UK, its plans leave no prospect of the UK joining the EU customs union or single market anytime soon.

Ukraine proving critical to relations

The past year put into action the motto that the UK is ‘leaving the EU, not Europe’, as London proved to be one of the leading European countries supporting Ukraine and its neighbours following the Russian invasion.

British participation in the newly-established European Political Community (EPC) sends a positive signal of the UK’s openness to re-engage with the continent

Close cooperation, with coordinated sanctions and effectively working together on the supply of arms and other help to Ukraine, shows that meaningful cross-Channel cooperation is both critical and possible in several policy areas.

The UK relationships with EU member states bordering Russia are appreciably the most cordial, and there has been an ongoing deepening of cooperation in security and defence, even during the height of Brexit tensions.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought the UK and its European allies closer together, building on the UK’s rich engagement through NATO, multilateral formats such as the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) in the Nordic-Baltic region, reinforced bilateral agreements and security guarantees with countries such as Estonia, Sweden, and Finland.

Supporting Ukraine and ensuring the security of the European continent should and will continue to bring the UK and its partners closer together and, in terms of capability projects, the UK and Italy recently announced they will develop a sixth-generation fighter jet together alongside Japan.

Re-engaging with the EU

It does remain a significant hurdle in many policy areas that the UK is no longer at the table in Brussels meaning that Britain risks becoming further detached from the European economy in critical sectors important for the future.

For example, the UK is not engaged in many critical discussions around industrial policy and the strategic sovereignty agenda in the EU, two areas seeing investment in significant resources and political energy – for instance, as Europeans build their joint response to the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

More can be done outside of EU structures, such as working towards climate transition, or in policy areas where EU does not have competency such as the energy crisis

But UK participation in some less influential initiatives related to the EU has progressed, such as the decision to join the PESCO Military Mobility project, which is part of the EU’s effort to deepen defence cooperation between its member states.

Moreover, the British participation in the newly-established European Political Community (EPC) – an intergovernmental format made of EU and non-EU states – sends a positive signal of the UK’s openness to re-engage with the continent.

Bilateral relations must continue growing

It should be noted that bilateral engagements will not fix the UK-EU relationship, address the big economic challenges posed by Brexit such as increased trade barriers, or lead EU states to put pressure on the EU to compromise in discussions over issues such as the Northern Ireland Protocol and British participation in the Horizon Europe programme.

But even in the most fractious areas of EU-UK relations there appears to be a change in tone on both sides. And more can be done outside of EU structures, such as working towards climate transition, or in policy areas where EU does not have competency such as the energy crisis.

Energy is a major policy challenge facing governments across the continent, and the UK has played a significant role in ensuring gas storage in the EU was filled up ahead of the winter.

The UK relationship with France and Germany – the two largest EU member states – should be the first priority, with Anglo-German relations remaining somewhat underpowered and Anglo-French relations only recently beginning to improve.

A UK-France summit in March 2023 will be the first for five years and plans to cover major issues such as defence and migration, plus King Charles III is to visit France as the first state visit of his new reign.

UK-Europe relations finally head in the right direction 2nd part

But the UK’s net must be thrown wider by investing in stronger bilateral engagement with others, notably Spain and the Netherlands. Although residual discussions with the EU will continue to affect some UK relationships – particularly Ireland – they should still be pursued, with deep and sustained diplomatic investment.

The slow rebuilding of trust shows now is the moment to not just discuss areas of shared interest but to start actively building more structured and long-term ways of cooperating, somehow preserved from the ups and downs of political changes and crises. This is even more crucial as domestic political imperatives may temporarily interfere again in 2024 with another UK general election.

There remains room to do more and to expand the scope of the discussions. The past year has shown the UK has much to offer its European partners, as well as what London gains from closer cooperation with its neighbours on issues of mutual interest. Now is the right time to build on that momentum.