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Shaky Foundations: how sustainable are EU-UK relations in their current form?

- By Fabian Zuleeg and Emily Fitzpatrick

- Research article available here


The past month has seen tensions flare once again between the EU and UK regarding implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland to the EU–UK Withdrawal Agreement. The Protocol, which governs post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, is highly contested and, following elections last month, the largest Unionist political party, the DUP, has refused to re-enter government until their grievances with the agreement are resolved. Talks between the EU and UK, aimed at addressing some concrete concerns of Northern Irish citizens and business, have made limited progress thus far due to a refusal of the UK side to engage. Adding a further element of crisis to the debate, the UK government announced plans to bring forward legislation, as early as next week, to unilaterally re-write elements of the Protocol in line with its own preferences. The uniliteral move has been met with sharp criticism by the EU, and internationally.

The question is whether the EU-UK relationship, in its current form, has the capacity to arrive at a joint solution on the Protocol, and thus prove its sustainability. The article Brexit and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement: Implications for Internal and External EU Differentiation[1] by Jannike Wachowiak & Fabian Zuleeg published in the International Spectator, noted that despite the parties arriving at a deal on a future relationship in December 2020 - the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement – relations are far more ‘distant and conflictual’ than originally intended. This will impact the effectiveness, legitimacy, and sustainability of EU-UK relations going forward.

The article demonstrates that when a relationship rests on shaky foundations, it is difficult to construct a solution. The distant and precarious relationship set out by the TCA, based in part on the UK government’s ideologically driven ‘Brexit’, exacerbates unionists’ grievances with the Protocol. If the UK had been willing to accept some obligations for regulatory alignment, for example on Sanitary and Phytosanitary products, the need for checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would have been greatly reduced.

Additionally, the conflictual nature of the relationship makes arriving at a joint solution increasingly difficult. The UK’s latest threats are in line with the ‘deal or no deal’ negotiating tactics outlined in the article. These serve to undermine trust between the parties. Given that the EU no longer views the UK’s commitment in international law as credible, offering flexibilities on the Protocol’s implementation becomes increasingly difficult, as there is no guarantee that the UK government will abide by any safeguards agreed.

The paper explained that, for the current governance model of EU-UK relations to be sustainable, it must be perceived as legitimate by EU and UK citizens. Clearly, in Northern Ireland the Protocol, in its current form, is not acceptable to many of the North’s population. Yet, a majority of voters do want the Protocol to work, subject to some modifications. But given the state of EU-UK relations at present, a common solution to this complex problem seems unlikely.

If no joint agreement on the Protocol’s implementation can be reached, the legitimacy and sustainability of the long-term relationship will suffer. The Commission has made clear that, should the UK government go through with unilateral action, it will respond with a package of escalating retaliatory measures, including trade tariffs and even, in the end, termination of the TCA. Given the shaky foundations on which it rests, there is a real possibility that EU-UK tensions could culminate to the point of toppling the relationship as a whole.

[1] Jannike Wachowiak & Fabian Zuleeg (2022) Brexit and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement: Implications for Internal and External EU Differentiation, The International Spectator, 57:1, 142-159, DOI: 10.1080/03932729.2022.2030604

Emily Fitzpatrick, Junior Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC)

Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive at the European Policy Centre (EPC)


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