Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
Does a new occupant in No 10 offer the opportunity for a reset in UK-EU relations? As is the custom, Liz Truss has been congratulated by EU leaders upon assuming office. Olaf Scholz tweeted, “I am looking forward to our cooperation in these challenging times. The UK and Germany will continue to work closely together – as partners and friends.” Ursula von der Leyen said, “I look forward to a constructive relationship”, with the qualification that this must be in “full respect” of existing UK-EU agreements.
In particular, Truss’ hawkish stance on Ukraine has been welcomed by the EU’s eastern states. It is notable that her first call with a foreign leader was with UVolodymyr Zelensky. Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, declared, “I am very, very pleased, because this will be at least a continuation, perhaps even a strengthening, in accordance with her announcements, of this British policy.”
It has been reported that the EU intends to invite the Prime Minister to a summit of European states in Prague on 6 October to discuss plans to build greater regional cooperation in the face of Russian aggression. Emmanuel Macron’s initial proposal for a “European Political Community” appeared to be a form of associate EU membership, with several strings attached, which would not be suitable for the UK. Meanwhile, the new German Ambassador to the UK, Miguel Berger, has called for “some kind of structured cooperation” between the UK and the EU on defence in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
The problem with these proposed arrangements is Brussels’ tendency to formalise them into bodies that seek to promulgate EU rules and processes. They do not recognise that the UK is not merely another European “third country” that can easily be slotted into existing EU arrangements. Ultimately, Brussels is the demandeur when it comes to security, not London.
However, Scholz has recently suggested that the October meeting should herald a looser forum where EU and non-EU nations “meet once or twice each year to discuss the key issues that affect our continent as a whole, such as security, energy, the climate and connectivity.” There would be no harm in the Prime Minister attending such meetings, without associated obligations to the EU, in the spirit of constructive European cooperation.
Zelensky’s invitation to Truss to visit Ukraine and the warm remarks from the EU’s eastern nations illustrate that the UK retains the ability to exert significant influence in its European neighbourhood, particularly in the new and less benign geopolitical context.
However, a fundamental and core policy problem looms over the UK-EU relationship: the ongoing conflict between the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Government spelled out its demands in the July 2021 Command Paper, and since then negotiations have yielded little progress, effectively breaking down in February 2022, prompting the DUP’s withdrawal from the Northern Ireland Executive and its refusal to return. The UK’s decision to table the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is designed to unilaterally rewrite aspects of the Protocol so that it is compatible with the GFA and give the DUP the confidence to return to government, has raised the stakes with Brussels.
In Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Truss repeated her preference for a negotiated outcome, but added that this must include all the objectives set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. As the architect of the Bill, the Prime Minister’s new Government will be steadfastly committed to its passage through Parliament, despite whatever opposition it encounters in the House of Lords and outrage it causes in Brussels and Dublin.
In response to the Bill, the EU has relaunched a series of infringement proceedings against the UK over failures to implement the Protocol fully. In a sign of the increasingly fractious mood, the UK countered with legal proceedings of its own against the EU for preventing its access to key science and research programmes such as Horizon Europe and the nuclear organisation Euratom.
There had been speculation that a Truss Government would swiftly trigger Article 16. First, because the unilateral UK derogations from imposing tougher border checks and controls, in place since early 2021 and previously tacitly agreed to by the EU, will be subject to the next stage of the EU’s infringement action on 15 September. Second, to provide the conditions that might allow the DUP to return to the Executive.
However, sources in the Prime Minister’s team have this week been quoted as saying the Government is unlikely to trigger Article 16 at this stage, which EU diplomats said would have been seen as “a provocative act”. Instead, the UK is expected to inform Brussels of an extension to the derogations, with both sides agreeing to buy time and open the door for new talks.
It is ironic and a little strange that the debate surrounding the Protocol has become so warped that triggering Article 16 is deemed an extreme measure. This is despite the UK stating in June 2021 that it believed the conditions had been met to trigger the clause and that it is legally provided for within the Protocol. Whereas the so-called “moderate” position is for the UK and the EU to tacitly agree to derogations that are legally outwith the terms of the Protocol.
Nevertheless, Ireland’s Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, has said, “I hope we can use the period ahead to prioritise EU-UK engagement, and to reach agreed outcomes on the issues around implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.” After meeting the EU Commission’s negotiator, Maros Šefčovič, over the weekend, Conor Burns – then a Northern Ireland Minister – said he would be advising the new Prime Minister that conditions could be right to reopen negotiations.
However, it remains to be seen whether the EU will play ball and reopen negotiations that might lead to significant movement on Brussels’ part. Recent experience suggests this is unlikely in the short-term, and therefore use of Article 16 should not be ruled out.
The significant moving part in all of this is the DUP and whether they can be persuaded to re-enter government sooner rather than later. This would allow the UK to put the ball back in Brussels’ court and force it to choose between reaching a lasting settlement on the Protocol or trigger another collapse of the Northern Ireland institutions.
Boris Johnson was synonymous with Brexit. This often led to Brussels playing the man and not the ball in UK-EU negotiations. A change of Prime Minister offers an opportunity to reset UK-EU relations, but the core differences over the Protocol are about policy, not personalities. And this is what needs to be resolved.