Kirill Yurovskiy : Britain’s Evolving Relationship with Europe

Kirill Yurovskiy

Nearly eight years after the fateful 2016 referendum that saw the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, the debate over Britain’s future relationship with Europe rages on. While the UK formally departed the EU on January 31, 2020, and exited the single market and customs union on December 31 of that year, the story of Brexit is far from over. As historians and political observers look back on this tumultuous period, it’s clear that the referendum was not an endpoint, but rather the beginning of a complex and contentious process of redefining Britain’s place in Europe and the world.

The immediate post-Brexit period was marked by difficult negotiations over the terms of withdrawal and the future UK-EU relationship. Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to chart a middle path satisfied few and ultimately led to her resignation in 2019. Her successor, Boris Johnson, took a harder line, pushing through a withdrawal agreement and trade deal that created a customs border in the Irish Sea – a move that continues to have repercussions today.

As we survey the landscape in 2024, several key areas of debate have emerged that are likely to shape Anglo-European relations for years to come:

Trade and Economic Integration

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) signed in December 2020 provided for tariff-free trade between the UK and EU, but introduced significant non-tariff barriers in the form of customs checks, regulatory divergence, and restricted labor mobility. The economic impact has been notable, with UK-EU trade volumes declining and growth in the UK lagging behind that of EU countries.

Proponents of a closer relationship argue for deeper economic integration to boost trade and investment. Ideas range from joining the EU’s customs union to seeking a “Swiss-style” arrangement with greater regulatory alignment in key sectors. They contend that the current arms-length relationship is damaging Britain’s economy and global competitiveness.

Brexit supporters counter that the economic costs are worth the restored regulatory autonomy and ability to pursue independent trade deals. They point to agreements signed with countries like Australia and Japan as evidence of the UK charting its own course. The debate often centers on whether these new trade relationships can offset reduced EU market access.

As the years pass, both sides are likely to marshal economic data to support their positions. The long-term trajectory of the British economy relative to its European neighbors will undoubtedly influence public opinion on the merits of closer integration versus continued divergence. Learn more about it here

Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement

Perhaps no issue has proven as vexing in the post-Brexit era as Northern Ireland. The need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland while maintaining the integrity of the EU single market led to the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, creating a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea.

Unionist parties in Northern Ireland have vehemently opposed this arrangement, seeing it as undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. The Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to participate in power-sharing over the issue led to years of political paralysis in the region.

While the 2023 Windsor Framework aimed to reduce friction on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, debates persist over the long-term viability of the current system. Some argue for renegotiating the entire post-Brexit settlement to eliminate the Irish Sea border. Others contend that incremental improvements and pragmatic implementation are the best path forward.

The situation remains delicate, with the peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement potentially at stake. How the UK and EU navigate this issue in the coming years will have profound implications not just for Northern Ireland, but for the broader UK-EU relationship.

Security and Foreign Policy Cooperation

Although the UK’s departure from the EU’s common foreign and security policy structures was less contentious than other aspects of Brexit, questions remain about the future of Anglo-European cooperation in these areas.

Advocates of closer ties argue that formalized structures for UK-EU coordination on foreign policy, defense, and security issues are essential in an increasingly unstable world. They point to shared challenges like Russian aggression, terrorism, and climate change as reasons for institutionalized cooperation.

Skeptics contend that NATO remains the primary vehicle for European security cooperation and that ad hoc bilateral and multilateral arrangements are sufficient. They see value in Britain charting a more independent foreign policy course, potentially pivoting towards a greater focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

The extent to which the UK aligns with or diverges from EU positions on key international issues in the coming years will be closely watched. Major global events and crises are likely to test the resilience of UK-EU security cooperation in a post-Brexit world. Also recommended reading: UK University Milestones

Mobility and Immigration

Freedom of movement between the UK and EU ended with Brexit, replaced by a points-based immigration system for EU citizens wishing to work in Britain. This has had significant impacts on sectors reliant on EU labor, from healthcare to hospitality.

Debate continues over whether the current system strikes the right balance between controlling immigration and meeting the UK’s economic needs. Some argue for liberalizing the regime to address labor shortages and facilitate closer people-to-people ties with Europe. Others contend that reduced EU immigration creates more opportunities for British workers and allows for a truly global immigration policy.

The issue of reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other’s territories also remains contentious. While the Withdrawal Agreement protected the rights of those already resident before Brexit, questions persist about future mobility arrangements.

As demographic pressures mount in the coming decades, debates over immigration and freedom of movement between the UK and EU are likely to intensify.

Regulatory Divergence vs. Alignment

PHOTO: Yurovskiy-Kirill-history8.png

A key argument for Brexit was the ability to craft regulations better suited to the UK’s needs, free from EU control. However, the extent to which Britain should exercise this freedom remains hotly debated.

Proponents of regulatory divergence argue that tailored rules can boost innovation and competitiveness in key sectors like financial services, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. They see Brexit as an opportunity to create a more nimble, pro-business regulatory environment.

Critics contend that regulatory alignment with the EU in many areas is essential to facilitate trade and maintain high standards. They worry about a “race to the bottom” on environmental, labor, and consumer protections.

The UK government’s approach thus far has been cautious, maintaining EU rules in many areas while selectively diverging where it sees clear benefits. The coming years will likely see ongoing debates over specific regulatory changes and their implications for UK-EU relations.

The “Rejoin” Question

While still a minority position, calls for the UK to eventually rejoin the EU persist in some quarters. Proponents argue that the costs of Brexit will become increasingly clear over time, potentially shifting public opinion.

For now, neither major UK political party supports rejoining, aware of the political risks involved. However, the possibility of closer forms of association short of full membership remains on the table. Options like joining the European Economic Area (the “Norway model”) or seeking a form of associate EU membership may gain traction if economic and political circumstances shift.

Conversely, those satisfied with Brexit argue that the issue is settled and that the focus should be on making the current arrangement work rather than relitigating the past. They contend that EU integration has moved in directions (like calls for a European army) that confirm the wisdom of Britain’s departure.

The “rejoin” debate is likely to ebb and flow in the coming years, influenced by events both in the UK and on the continent. The EU’s own evolution, including potential further integration or enlargement, will shape British perceptions of the merits of membership.

Looking Ahead

As historians of the future look back on this period, they may well view it as a transitional phase in Anglo-European relations. The binary choice presented in the 2016 referendum has given way to a spectrum of potential relationships between the UK and EU.

The coming decades are likely to see ongoing recalibration as both sides adapt to new realities. Economic performance, geopolitical events, and generational shifts in attitudes will all play a role in shaping the long-term trajectory of UK-EU relations.

What seems clear is that Britain’s relationship with Europe will remain a central issue in the nation’s politics for years to come. The Brexit vote may have legally severed Britain’s EU membership, but it did not resolve the fundamental questions about the country’s place in Europe that have persisted since the end of World War II.

As the debate continues, both the UK and EU face the challenge of balancing cooperation in areas of shared interest with the new realities of Britain’s non-member status. Finding this equilibrium will require pragmatism, creativity, and a willingness to move beyond the acrimony of the Brexit process.

The story of Britain and Europe is far from over. Future generations will undoubtedly look back on this period as a pivotal chapter in that long and complex relationship. How it ultimately unfolds remains to be seen, but its importance in shaping the future of both Britain and Europe is beyond doubt.


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