Map of Ireland

Taking stock of the UK-EU relations

Dr Cleo Davies  |  Senior Research Associate at the University of East Anglia.

This blog is based on work carried out in the framework of the project ‘Negotiating the Future’, led by ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ Senior Fellow Professor Hussein Kassim.

Negotiating the Future

Three years ago, the UK officially left the European Union after both parties reached a deal for an orderly departure, the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland (henceforth the Protocol). On the 1 January 2021, the UK and the EU embarked on a new relationship, the parameters of which are defined by the deal they reached in December 2020, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

In January 2023, ahead of the first meeting of the UK-Germany strategic dialogue, Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock labelled the Protocol the ‘Achilles heel’ of the relations between the EU and the UK. She went on to add that solutions for Northern Ireland must be ‘on the basis of existing agreements’ before the ‘great potential of the partnership’ can be realised.

Her words capture the two major and interlinked challenges for the EU-UK relationship. First, the problems over the implementation of the Protocol have seriously strained relations and undermined trust not just with the EU institutions, but also with member states. Secondly, there may well be ‘great potential’, but it has not yet translated into real achievements.

This blog takes stock of how tensions have stymied the relationship under the TCA and the (limited) opportunities going forward.

How trust was eroded

In the recent weeks, there is a cautious but optimistic view amongst the most seasoned observers of the UK-EU relationship. Concrete progress has been made on solutions for the implementation of the Protocol. However, there are political stumbling blocks such as the UK’s demands to remove any role for the Court of Justice of the EU, or the EU’s significant concern about the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill currently going through Parliament. If adopted, it would give the UK ministers powers to unilaterally override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement and risk breaching international law.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

Problems around the Protocol plagued the relationship even before the end of the transition period, when the UK government tabled legislation in autumn 2020 that would put it in breach of international law. In January 2021, days into the new arrangements, MPs in Westminster were already asking about the possibility of triggering Article 16 of the Protocol to address problems in the transit of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU’s blunder late January 2021 when it briefly invoked Article 16 over vaccines fuelled suspicion in the UK over EU overreach. When the UK unilaterally decided to extend grace periods under the Protocol early March 2021, the EU saw further confirmation that the UK did not intend to implement the deal it had signed and ratified. This set the tone of the relationship in the months that followed with escalation in political tensions affecting the entire relationship, including the TCA.

Delays and blockages, but cooperation is up and running

Ongoing tensions in the UK-EU relationship over the implementation of the Protocol have led to delays or blockages in a number of areas covered by the TCA, such as the participation of the UK in Union Programmes. The EU has also clearly stated that until the UK complies with ‘all its obligations under all agreements’, it will not establish the three sectoral working groups (motor vehicles, organic products and medicinal products). The need for ‘trust and the full respect of agreements’, including the Protocol, was also raised in the discussions on energy. There have even been hints at the possibility to suspend parts of the TCA should the UK ‘unilaterally disapply core parts of the Protocol’.

Despite the problems, specialised committees set up under the TCA are up and running. The meeting minutes suggest that these are important venues for smoothing out the technical aspects across most matters. Both parties underline that cooperation on law enforcement and judicial cooperation, which provides for unprecedented close cooperation between the EU and a third country, is working very well. The Memorandum of Understanding on offshore renewable energy cooperation, signed in December 2022, implements commitments under the TCA. The parties created a working group on fisheries under the specialised committee on fisheries, and the EU has in principle accepted the UK’s suggestion to set up a working group on energy.

Other arenas for cooperation under the TCA, such as the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly and the Civil Society Forum, are also up and running albeit sometimes with a delay. And at least one set of professional bodies has made an application for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, namely the Architects Council of Europe and the Architects Registration Board.

Nevertheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, issues of energy security as well as the economic challenges of a high inflation, low growth environment all point to the need for more cooperation between the UK and the EU. Meanwhile, the barriers to mobility are further evidence that the TCA is a ‘thin deal’.

The relationship under the TCA: (limited) opportunities

Any prospect of strengthening the relationship is contingent first on solving the problems around the implementation of the Protocol.

Secondly, any strategic approach to improving the TCA should take account of the way the EU deals with third countries, especially those with which it is close geographically and has strong economic ties. The EU will no doubt reject any proposals for separate standalone agreements that fall outside of the governance framework of the TCA because it views this as taking the path of a far too complex ‘Swiss style relationship’. The UK already recognised this as a problem for the EU during negotiations on the future relationship.

Furthermore, the EU is very unlikely to grant the UK any favourable access to the single market in services unless there is a change in closeness of regulatory integration with the EU, notably by aligning with (parts of) the EU acquis. This may limit the areas in which the EU will be favourable to instruments of mutual recognition and reciprocity. So far, the EU has rejected using such instruments where the UK was a net exporter of services before leaving the EU, such as financial services and legal services.

That said, the TCA does allow for development. Technical work can be deepened and institutionalised by establishing formal working groups under the specialised committees. As mentioned, this has already been done when the parties created the working group on fisheries. The TCA can also be expanded, notably through supplementing agreements. A recent report by UK in a Changing Europe highlights a number of areas where there is scope for improvement, notably on mobility.

A final point concerns the relationship with the member states. For any matters that fall under the scope of the Withdrawal agreement and the TCA, that relationship is mediated through the way the EU has organised the work between the Council and the Commission. The Council’s Working party on the UK coordinates the work and keeps an ongoing dialogue with the team inside the European Commission. Transparency, the working method established during the negotiations with the UK, continues to ensure there is strong unity for the EU’s approach to the UK. Meanwhile, the UK no longer meets counterparts in the Council configuration meetings, which makes attempts to push a UK agenda all the more challenging.

Looking ahead, if repairing the relationship is important for all parties, the EU also has other fish to fry. For the UK, it is a strategic imperative.