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It's time to reset the EU-UK relationship

It's time to reset the EU-UK relationship
It's time to reset the EU-UK relationship

 


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The author is a member of the Board of Directors of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Jake Benford, foreign policy expert at Bertelsmann Stiftung, also contributed.

With elections taking place on both sides of the Channel in the coming weeks, you could be forgiven for assuming that change is afoot regarding the problematic EU-UK relationship. In fact, of course, this topic was barely addressed in the European Parliament elections earlier this month. Even in the UK, Labor and the Conservatives have had less say than expected on all matters in Brussels, for different reasons.

But the rescheduling of the election offers an opportunity to accelerate the current cautious reconciliation process triggered by successful cooperation in the defense of Ukraine and the breakthrough of the Windsor Framework in Northern Ireland. Until now, Brussels and key EU member states have believed that the political ball is largely in Westminster's court as Britain considers its role in international affairs post-Brexit. But EU member states now have a renewed interest in improving relations with a country that is one of the world's largest economies, a nuclear power, a staunch supporter of Ukraine and a clear stakeholder in European security issues.

The EU of 2024 will not be the same as it was in 2016, when the UK decided to leave the EU. It is not the same as 2020, when the UK's departure conditions were confirmed. Significant geopolitical changes, including the end of the post-Cold War settlement and the potential for the United States to withdraw further from its role as guarantor of European security, have fundamentally reshaped the goals and interests of the EU and are grappling with the need for new strategies and strategies. This is a structure to satisfy.

In addition to national measures such as increased defense spending, three responses at the EU level to this new environment stand out. First, the use of the single market and trade agreements as geopolitical tools has increased. The EU is pursuing a new economic and security agenda against systemic competitors. Second, after years of delay, escalation has begun again. Third, there is a renewed interest in the EU to shape Europe's political architecture more broadly. This includes countries that have no prospect of joining the EU but are currently part of the European Political Community. Coincidentally, the next summit of this new forum will be held in the UK in July, immediately after the general election.

For the EU, flexibility, consistency and deep ties with like-minded partners are vital. This means there is an opportunity to rethink our approach to our relationship with the UK and a rare opportunity to shape together a new political structure for the continent.

The first step will be a joint summit to broaden the scope for broader strategic cooperation on economic, financial and security issues following the UK election. This could build on the effective relationships EU member states already have with the UK in NATO and the G7. Regular summits of this kind can help set new priorities.

But crucially, the issues in your current relationship must also be addressed. The trade and cooperation agreement between the EU and the UK, signed at the end of 2020, is outdated given today’s challenges. In the short term, there is a need to include the European Union's economic security agenda, and in the medium term, improvements need to be made to resolve the asymmetry in product trade that is shackling the British economy. There will always be qualitative differences between single market membership and free trade agreements, but in the past the EU has shown openness to a variety of agreements if their vital interests are protected.

Finally, efforts to strengthen the capabilities of member countries' defense industries are as big a challenge for the EU as for the EU-UK relationship. Although much has not yet been achieved in practice, there is still a very strong argument for improving cooperation between Member States through the coordination and financing mechanisms put in place over the past decade. Given the UK's capabilities and the role of UK companies in value chains, it would be highly desirable to improve the rules on third country participation, even if progress within the EU is driven only by a smaller subgroup of countries. This kind of long-term cooperation can avoid net losses and duplication of programs that prioritize European security and resilience.

Bringing the UK back in could mean putting the EU in good stead as a coherent geopolitical actor. But it always takes two people to dance the tango. Any decisions made by the new UK government will be closely watched in Brussels and the nation's capital, and any changes in attitudes towards EU relations will be closely monitored.

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