The foreign secretary James Cleverly recently said that he always believed “close and friendly cooperation between the UK and the EU would be the ultimate and eventual outcome of Brexit”. And yes, the tone between the two sides improved considerably following the Windsor Framework.
However, since then, there have been delays over the UK’s participation in the EU’s Horizon research programme (now solved), quarrels over the EU’s use of the Argentine term for the Falkland Islands, and the UK’s alleged dismissal of an offer for formal collaboration on ‘global issues’. Warm words notwithstanding, little of substance has changed.
Moreover, there are few reasons to believe that this will change any time soon.
As the effects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) on UK-EU trade and wider cooperation became more visible, a growing number of think tanks and business groups have advocated a revision of its terms.
They have created long lists of potential trade easements (for example, a veterinary deal) as well as arrangements facilitating business travel and youth exchanges. The Labour Party has vowed to “tear down barriers”. If it wins the next election, it says it wants to go through the TCA “page-by-page” as part of the five-year review of its implementation.
Yet as our new report Reviewing the TCA: Potential Paths shows, this is a one-way street. Our research, based on conversations with the key people involved on each side, found that the EU has little appetite for using what they see as a routine stocktake to negotiate substantive changes. For Brussels, the TCA represents an agreement it painstakingly negotiated only two and half years ago which carefully balances the interests of 27 member states.
What is more, the TCA favours trade in goods over trade in services and is a ”very good” deal for the EU which enjoys a trade surplus with the UK in goods.
On top of this, EU leaders have more pressing issues to deal with. The war in Ukraine, rising tensions with China, migration, and the green and digital transformations have long replaced Brexit on their list of priorities. The onus will therefore be on the UK government to persuade politicians in the EU that there is something in it for them if they choose to build on the current relationship as part of the review.
In many ways, the UK and EU continue to be out of step. After the referendum, the EU regretted the UK’s decision to leave and would have welcomed a closer relationship (which would have entailed more obligations for the UK). Now that a deal has been done (and officials and politicians are tired of Brexit), the EU wants to focus on implementing what has been agreed, rather than revisiting it.
The UK government, in its quest for sovereignty, sought a distant relationship, outside the Single Market and Customs Union, rejecting EU proposals on mobility and foreign and security cooperation.
Now, however, businesses are struggling to deal with new red tape, touring musicians are struggling to play in the EU, and the number of visiting school groups has dropped significantly.
Last year, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost acknowledged having adopted “too purist” an approach on issues like touring artists and youth mobility, and argued they should be looked at again.
Attempts to raise these with the European Commission were met with a rebuff. As far as the EU is concerned, these problems are simply a function of the UK’s decision to end freedom of movement and adopt only limited mobility provisions.
None of this is to imply that there are not some areas where Brussels too might like to see the current arrangements improved upon. Enhanced youth mobility is one such issue, particularly for those member states that have traditionally sent high numbers of students, au pairs, and school groups to the UK.
Yet even here, achieving a new deal might be difficult. Whilst the UK could sign deals with individual European governments and seems to have approached some, the baggage of the Brexit years means the European Commission is likely to claim some sort of oversight and press for an EU-wide arrangement which would probably be less attractive to the Government in London.
Seven years after the referendum, the UK and EU are on friendlier terms. Yet, there is still a long way to go to rebuild trust and, what’s more, they have divergent priorities for the future of the relationship.
If a potential Labour government wanted some movement on trade, they would need to offer something in return. And they need to be prepared to make the trade offs necessary to sort it.
Jannike Wachowiak is co-author of the new report of Potential Paths and a researcher at UK in a Changing Europe