Ideas on Europe

EU-UK event - Simon Usherwood

© Fred Moon sur Unsplash EU-UK event - Simon Usherwood
© Fred Moon sur Unsplash

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research.

Very pleased to welcome you back on Euradio. Simon Usherwood, you are Professor at the Open University, and Chair of our partners UACES.

A few days ago, you co-organised a conference in London on the state of EU-UK relations. But who still speaks about Brexit?

That’s the big question. While a lot of people think that Brexit is ‘done’, it is clear there’s still a lot to be dealt with.

However, as we heard from excellent speakers from across the EU, Brexit and EU-UK relations in general, are not on the top of anyone’s to-do list. Instead, governments are focused on things like the economic situation, the wars in Ukraine and Palestine and even the presidential election in the United States next autumn.

What’s the main reason for this shift of focus?

The reasons is mostly that the British government has stepped back from the threats that we associated with Boris Johnson about not following the obligations of the different treaties the UK signed when it left the European Union.

Rishi Sunak’s commitment to sticking to those texts – seen most clearly in his Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland which we spoke about back in the spring – means that there’s no immediate peril that requires people’s attention.

Of course, that’s not the same as things being all wonderful and this was where our conference really focused.

Like any relationship, you need to keep working at it, to sustain and maintain it. That’s as true for governments as it is for people.

You mean the relationship is not set in stone?

Exactly. And that’s for three main reasons.

Firstly, the treaties themselves are dynamic objects. They contain future deadlines for talks, transition periods and points to reconsider how it is all working.

At the end of next year, Northern Ireland will get to vote on whether they want to keep the Protocol arrangements. Next Christmas might also see some tensions over fisheries, where we know that both sides have some strong feeling.

And the year after that we’ll see a general review of the main treaty, which might require more substantial negotiations.

Secondly, both the UK and the EU are constantly changing themselves.

There are the European Parliament elections next spring, which will lead to a new Commission and Council leadership. And here in the UK, we are all waiting on a General Election, which seems likely to produce a new government, who might want to change course on many points of policy.

Thirdly and finally, the world in which the EU and UK sit is also on the move all the time.

Most obviously, a Trump victory next autumn might have significant impacts both on Europe’s ability to support Ukraine and on transatlantic relations more generally.

We have no clear sense yet of whether that might push Britain closer to or further apart from the rest of Europe, even as there are the growing incentives to collaborate on topics like dealing with climate change.

You mentioned the elections. Would a possible Labour government actually make much difference?

That looks doubtful. The broad view from those at our conference was that while a Labour government under Keir Starmer might talk more positively about the EU, that is unlikely to result in any great change in the substance.

Labour is focused on winning the election and most British voters aren’t that interested in what UK-EU relations should look like. As much as there is a lot of unhappiness about how Brexit has gone, that doesn’t mean they want to return to the subject. Instead, it will be action on jobs and public services that will get people voting for them.

This is however not without a paradox.

While there is an understandable lack of desire to keep on talking about ‘Europe’, it’s also clear that failing to talk about it will only result in more significant difficulties in the future.

Whether we are talking about tariffs on batteries for electric cars, or new legislation on taxing carbon on imports, or who gets to catch fish where, or how we can get to a sustainable arrangement for Northern Ireland, we cannot leave it on the side and hope it goes away.

We count on you to keep us posted. Many thanks, Simon Usherwood, for this update. I recall you are professor at the Open University, and Chair of our partners UACES.