Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

Making the most of the UK-EU reset

With agreement on the Windsor Framework, relations between Britain and the EU have shifted to a more positive trajectory, writes Sarah Raine. The UK government will now look to build on this reset; Paris and Berlin have an important role to play in helping sustain the positive momentum to EU-UK relations, including through continuing to bolster their own bilateral relations with the UK.

The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was an integral part of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. Since its entry into force back in February 2020, the need to better address the concerns of communities in Northern Ireland whilst still protecting the integrity of the EU Single Market have been at the heart of ongoing tensions between the two sides. With the adoption of the Windsor Framework by the EU-UK Joint Committee, there is now a clear opportunity for a much-needed broader reset to EU-UK relations.

There had already been some signs of progress towards a more positive relationship prior to the deal at Windsor. In November 2022, the EU accepted the UK’s request to join its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) military mobility project. This saw the UK join three other non-EU member states involved in at least one of PESCO’s 60 collaborative projects and represented the UK’s first post-Brexit formal engagement with the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. In December, the UK re-joined the North Seas Energy Cooperation group (where the European Commission holds the co-presidency). Although a regional non-binding grouping, the European Commission holds the co-presidency of this group of now 10 European countries, working alongside the Commission to develop cost-effective and sustainable offshore renewable energy.

The Windsor Framework should now unlock progress in other areas. For example, negotiations on the financial terms for the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme, will now accelerate. Similarly, there are now hopes for progress on the delayed signature of a Memorandum of Understanding that will establish EU-UK structured regulatory cooperation on financial services. The UK will be hoping this might lead to the unlocking of more equivalence decisions from the EU in assorted financial services sub-areas. Any renewed focus here will be welcome given that the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement is notably lacking in substance here, with only 8 of the TCA’s 783 articles relating directly to financial services.

The UK’s bilateral relations with its European partners have also been improving in recent months. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the UK’s leading role in first predicting the war, and in then supporting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, has underlined the UK’s value as an intelligence, defence and security partner. It has helped focus European nations on their shared strategic interests.

This dynamic has already helped add greater substance to the UK’s relationships with Central and Eastern European partners. Ties with Poland and the Baltics are notably close. The Joint Expeditionary Force that the UK leads alongside 10 other states has increased its military activities in order to provide greater levels of assurance to its members. Meanwhile, it is London, not Paris or Berlin, that joined the January 2023 ‘Tallinn Pledge’ made by the defence ministers and representatives of nine European countries. This recognised that equipping Ukraine to repel Russia from territory already occupied was as important as equipping it to defend territory not yet occupied and pledged greater levels of military assistance.

Bilateral relationships with France and Germany are now also improving. When UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron met in Paris on 10 March for the 36th France-United Kingdom Summit, the five years that had passed since the previous summit had been marked by strained bilateral relations. French enthusiasm in the inevitable pre-summit search for big deliverables is likely to have been undermined by a few factors:

*Uncertainty prior to the 27 February agreement on the ‘Windsor Framework’ over whether there would be a positive conclusion to EU-UK negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol. Failure here would have inevitably led to heightened EU-UK tensions with the UK government resuming the parliamentary progress of its controversial Northern Ireland Protocol bill.

*News shortly before the summit that Sunak would fly only days after meeting Macron to a meeting with his Australian and American counterparts to showcase the latest announcement of the AUKUS security partnership from which France is excluded.

*The relative success of UK-France coordination on the war in Ukraine to date within the Quad format, compounded by the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to both capitals in February, meaning that many of the big announcements on support for Ukraine had already been rolled out. Meanwhile, the political consensus required to supply new categories of equipment, such as the Anglo-French long range air-to-surface cruise missile Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG, was simply not there.

This meant that the reality of the summit’s deliverables perhaps did not match the rhetoric of its renewed amity. But even the rhetoric itself was important and welcome, and Macron and Sunak revelled in underlining all that France and the UK have in common, whilst reaffirming their commitment to the Lancaster House Treaties and to deepening their defence and security partnership as the ‘backbone of their bilateral relationship’. And a modest collection of welcome commitments were made, from joint training of Ukrainian marines, to strengthening social and economic ties and cooperating on energy and decarbonisation, even as the deal on migration which took centre stage in media reporting on the summit is unlikely to be more than a temporal fix. Tensions over small boats, and migration policy in general, are likely to continue.

March’s Anglo-French summit comes after the UK and Germany met in January 2023 for the inaugural meeting of their annual UK-Germany strategic dialogue, with the event hosted by UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and attended by German Foreign Minister Anna Lena Baerbock. The stated ambition of this new strategic dialogue is to increase cooperation on a range of joint priorities, with a significant focus on global security issues. Less grandiose but still significant is the planned revival of the UK-Germany cultural commission, due to meet for the first time since 1993.

Together the governments in London, Paris and Berlin are working to sustain European support for Ukraine and to shape the nature of this support, most obviously through regular meetings of the Quad (US, UK, France and Germany) which are critical for maintaining European and Transatlantic unity. Whilst Russia remains the agreed, most acute direct security threat, capitals are increasingly concerned by the systemic challenge being presented by Beijing, even if views on the urgency with which this particular challenge is being posed vary somewhat between partners. Macron’s visit to Beijing in early April is likely to attract some media scrutiny over potential differences between capitals with regard to their China policies. But no diplomatic relationship is tension-free.

As a third party to the EU, and one that will inevitably want to be close when it suits and diverge when it does not, the UK is set to be locked in negotiations with the EU more often than not. There are many issues, such as energy security, on which France, Germany, and the UK are both simultaneously partners and competitors. But this is precisely why atmospherics matter. Negotiations conducted from a platform of common trust and mutual respect set in play very different dynamics from those conducted by parties where one side is assumed to be needing to showcase all the benefits and the other all the costs of their new-found institutional distance.

At the press conference at the end of March’s Anglo-French summit, Prime Minister Sunak declared that the UK is ‘writing a new chapter’ in its relationship with the EU. On this occasion, there is evidence to support the rhetoric. There are plenty of unresolved issues that might yet subvert the trajectory of this new chapter, most immediately the UK’s pursuit of its Illegal Migration Bill and its interest in concluding an EU-UK migrant return agreement. But there are now at least welcome signs that these disputes can once again be situated within an appreciation of broader partnership, common interests and strategic goals.

Sarah Raine is a former British diplomat and currently a Consulting Senior Fellow for Geopolitics and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies