We’re at a bit of a junction in EU-UK relations right now.
Having bumped back from the questions of good faith with February’s Windsor Framework, the two sides got to work on the next obvious target: Horizon membership.
Well, now we appear to have slipped into a gap of some kind.
Certainly, there are things that need attention right now, like car batteries, but despite pressure on both sides to rework tariff schedules, the Commission seems not to want to play ball. On the UK side, joining the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean (PEM) Convention also looks a bit distant.
Outside the narrow confines of the Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the UK is also still working out how it handles the European Political Community (EPC) summit it’s supposed to host next summer (dates and location still TBC).
In short, there’s not much sign of things going on. Which is either because those things that are going on are being kept very far from the limelight, or because there aren’t things going on.
To be clear, there is a baseline of on-going contact and interaction, to service the various agreements, but that’s rather different from substantive work on opening out new areas.
If we assume that an absence of public comment is the best marker of in-camera activity, then Breton’s statement on car batteries looks like a signifier of inactivity, or impasse. And that’s for the most obvious next step in working together.
Which takes us back round to my title: are we in a holding pattern right now, and if so, what kind of holding pattern is it?
As I’ve argued before, Sunak has approached EU relations through a strong lens of his domestic political situation. Windsor made sense as a closing-off of an obvious problem (plus a clear differentiation from his predecessor but one), and Horizon was self-contained enough to be worth the effort, but getting into bigger resets looks like a hiding to nothing, either with his backbench or with voters that increasingly don’t rate the matter as that important.
So the British government is arguably in a fire-fighting mode for the rest of this administration.
But what about the EU?
Domestic factors obviously apply here too. We’re on the run-in to European elections next spring – witness Von Der Leyen’s State of the EU speech last week, with all its pitch – which means lots of people changing jobs, even if the underlying political balance doesn’t move very much.
Add to that all the other things the EU is concerned with, from rule of law to enlargement to post-Covid reconstruction, and it might be understandable if attention is elsewhere than the UK.
But at the same time, the Union has held a long-term position of deepening ties with its neighbourhood, especially with those bits of it that aren’t actively antagonistic. That’s an uneven track, but as a rule of thumb, there’s a clear preference to doing more together.
Perhaps the current hiatus is a temporary thing, a product of everyone waiting to clear the coming election year on both sides, so that everyone can pick up in late 2024 with a clearer sense of what’s what.
However, Windsor shouldn’t leave us thinking that we’re back to regular business. The scars of the Internal Market Bill and the Retained EU Law Bill and the noises off about ECHR membership are still there and still fresh in the minds of EU policymakers.
Even if there is a change of party in London next year, that will still leave issues.
Firstly, Labour have put so many fences around policy that there might not be scope for doing much. With dynamic alignment apparently also off the table, some in Brussels might be forgiven for thinking that a full and frank discussion in the UK of trade-offs might not be about to happen.
Secondly, even if Labour are willing to conclude new deals, then at least half an eye will be on the trajectory of the Conservatives in opposition. With the possible sole exception of Michael Heseltine, the general view is that the party will drift right under new leadership, given its membership. While that might make a second Labour term more likely, the past seven years will give enough pause for thought about What Britain’s Like. Is there risk in setting up more entanglements with Labour, if a returning Tory government is going to tear things up again?
Such views are understandable, but also come with the risk of setting up a new stasis.
As a case in point, look to Switzerland.
Here we have a much closer relationship, but one with significant issues, both political and institutional. Both sides bump along, sometimes making progress, but often not: we’re nearing a decade of to-and-fro on an institutional accord that still has no clear endpoint, even if the Swiss are moving once again to get things going.
In both the Swiss and the British case, the EU has arrangements that function acceptably, even if other opportunities are left on the table, so if there are more pressing issues to work on, why not just leave things as they are, on a semi-permanent basis?
The EU’s built up a lot of experience and expertise in handling crises (you can read about this is in a couple of volumes (here and here) that I’ve contributed to), but we’re not in a crisis any more.
Regular governance doesn’t have the glamour of an emergency situation, but it still requires attention and effort. Not least because several of the crises the EU has faced have come out of the failings of that regular governance: Brexit is a case in point.
As a recovering historical institutionalist, I’ll end by noting that institutions are sticky: the arrangement you put in place in a hurry because you had to often end up sticking around for a very long time, even when they don’t really work so well. Again, the Swiss model is a good example.
Whether the UK is now locked into the TCA model remains to be seen, but the next year will give us a pretty good idea.