Fixing Brexit: A New Agenda for a New Partnership With the European Union

Anton Spisak Senior Fellow, UK Policy

November 28, 2022
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This paper outlines a new policy agenda for the restoring of a better functioning and strategic partnership between the United Kingdom and European Union.

Brexit, in its current form, is not working. Any British government, present or future, will need to confront post-Brexit challenges.

In its current form, the post-Brexit relationship with the EU is not working. Practical and structural problems with the agreements negotiated by Boris Johnson’s government – not only the Northern Ireland Protocol, but also the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) – mean that any present or future British government will come under pressure both from the business community and public to confront these challenges and fix them.

At the same time, the British public’s views are beginning to shift. According to recent polling by the Tony Blair Institute, a substantial majority of Britons, including Leave voters, think the post-Brexit relationship with the EU is functioning badly while nearly two-thirds are in favour of the UK forging closer future ties with the EU. As a consequence, the UK’s political leaders can no longer hide from Brexit – they need to openly acknowledge its consequences and set out a plan to fix them.

We need a new debate about how to fix Brexit.

These may not be tectonic shifts in the Brexit debate, but they reveal that the room for the ideology that has dominated the debate since the 2016 referendum is dwindling. Instead, there is a growing political space for pragmatism that can define new terms for the debate about the type of relationship with the EU that would work better.

The terms of this new debate should start by recognising the following four facts:

  • The current post-Brexit relationship with the EU is not sustainable. It is damaging the UK’s economy, and causing instability in Northern Ireland and political friction with the EU.
  • The government must focus on finding ways to improve upon the current Brexit deal. However, taking the UK back into the European single market just yet – without clear majority support for this – would divide the British public further.
  • Entirely frictionless trade, in this type of relationship, is not possible, but there are improvements that can be achieved through carefully negotiated arrangements and sensible domestic-policy choices to substantially reduce friction.
  • It is in the interests of both the UK and EU to recognise, particularly with the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in mind, that there are strong shared interests and values, and therefore a new and better relationship is in our mutual interest.

Improving the current relationship with the EU requires a carefully calibrated policy plan.

What any present or future British government needs, therefore, is a considered plan on how to approach the task at hand and what the UK can offer to the EU to get a better deal.

Our proposal is a sequenced package of solutions that begins with the UK investing substantive political capital into repairing trust with Brussels and other EU capitals; then developing a clear and coherent internal policy and strategy on Europe; and culminating in efforts to revisit aspects of the post-Brexit agreements that are not functioning well or are not in the UK’s interests.

The first task is to fix the trust deficit in the current relationship with the EU and restore mutual confidence. This can include:

  • Rapidly agreeing a package of confidence-building measures with the EU, focused on tackling the practical problems facing citizens and businesses on both sides of the Channel.
  • Sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol, based on a UK-wide regulatory agreement on food and animal-health standards as well as a more enhanced role for Northern Ireland’s elected representatives.
  • Committing to high standards on food, labour and the environment through domestic legislation, offering reassurances to the EU that the UK does not intend radically to deregulate its economy while unlocking the negotiating space for more lasting improvements to the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

The second task is to develop a clear and coherent domestic Europe strategy – essentially, a new modus operandi for engaging with the EU, its institutions and its regulatory and legislative system. This can include:

  • Creating a domestic regulatory strategy to engage with the EU and enable UK ministers to align with EU rules on a voluntary basis.
  • Developing a new diplomatic strategy that treats the EU as a strategic partner and ally.

As part of the final task, the future government should revisit the TCA using the pre-agreed review process, which will automatically begin in 2025. This can include:

  • Formally consulting UK businesses on post-Brexit arrangements to develop policy.
  • Deepening existing arrangements to reduce trade barriers in goods, services, mobility and digital trade.
  • Developing a new security partnership to advance cooperation on law enforcement, criminal justice and wider issues, such as tackling illegal migration.
  • Building a new strategic pillar within the TCA to advance cooperation in areas of shared interest, such as foreign policy, external security and defence, and issues of cross-border regulation in technology and financial services.

Any UK government will have to confront the unresolved questions of Brexit whether it likes or it not. Only a government that is prepared for this task with a plan in hand will succeed in finding a new steady footing with the EU.

It is in the interest of the country that the current government should strive for a healthier relationship with the EU. But putting in place such a plan might ultimately be the task of a future Labour government.

Read the full report

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