European Union Views of the UK post-Brexit and of the Future EU-UK Relationship

SCER is grateful to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung for their support for this paper. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.

Executive Summary

This paper analyses how the UK is currently perceived across the EU, how the future EU-UK relationship is considered in the medium term, and how the UK’s constitutional strains are understood. It draws on 18 in-depth, off-the-record interviews across 11 EU member states and in Brussels.

Current Views of the UK

Overall, the UK’s image, reputation and influence is seen as having been badly damaged by the decision to leave the EU and by the way UK politics have unfolded since the June 2016 vote, including its relationship with the EU. Where the UK had previously been commonly seen as a pragmatic, serious and highly influential player in European affairs, it is now seen as unreliable, unpredictable and having lost substantial influence by no longer having a voice and vote within the EU. For many member states, a long-standing ally and partner in EU affairs has been lost and a new relationship both bilaterally and between the EU-UK needs to be built.

There has been surprise at the way the UK – both government and parliament – has handled the Brexit process. It appears to many that the UK government does not know what it wants, only what it does not want.

Trust in the UK has been severely damaged, in particular by the clauses in the UK’s Internal Market bill that renege on the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. This loss of trust is profound, leading many to question whether the UK can be trusted when it signs future agreements.

The Future EU-UK Relationship

Despite the dismay at Brexit, and the unflattering views of the current UK, there is widespread agreement that the UK remains a significant European country, albeit a medium-sized global player. It will remain an important neighbour to the EU. There is much openness to building a strong, close and creative partnership in the coming years – with hopes that such a relationship could build on the agreement of a basic EU-UK free trade deal. EU member states are particularly keen to develop closer foreign policy and security relationships and cooperation on climate change.

There is less enthusiasm for aiming to further strengthen the economic partnership at least in the next two years or so, though inevitably there will be consultations around the practical implementation of any agreement. The possibility of the UK re-joining the EU in the future is seen as unlikely by most, with even ten years being soon as too soon. However, this will depend how the EU and UK develop in that time, and in particular whether the EU moves towards more differentiated integration, perhaps opening up the possibility of the UK joining an outer tier.

There is also substantial Brexit fatigue and frustration and different views on whether and how fast a stronger relationship could be built in the future – the ball is seen as lying in the UK’s court. The EU faces many other challenges and the UK is not near the top of its priority list.

The UK’s Constitutional Strains

There is a varying degree of attention to the UK’s constitutional strains across the EU. Some, notably in the larger EU member states and in those states neighbouring the UK, are alert to the tensions and the potential fragmentation of the UK. Others are less aware or less focused on the issue. There are concerns around the UK potentially becoming more unstable if its union did break up. At the same time, that Northern Ireland would be part of the EU in the case of Irish reunification is accepted. EU member states and institutions clearly expect to stay neutral in the face of either a border poll in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, or any future Scottish independence referendum.

There are also concerns, notably because of Catalonia, that any future Scottish referendum should be legally and constitutionally sound and done in agreement between London and Edinburgh. If Scotland chose independence in that context then there is broad openness to Scotland having a normal accession path to the EU. There is a range of views on how rapidly and easily, or not, that path would unfold. At the same time, a future accession to the EU of an independent Scotland is seen as considerably more straightforward than the current accession paths of the western Balkans candidate countries, not least as Scotland was in the EU, as part of the UK, for 47 years.

Overall, it is inevitable, given geography and the economic, political, cultural and security ties between the two, that the UK and EU will continue to have a relationship – however positive or fractious that relationship will be.

Kirsty Hughes, 2020
Picture Credit: Kirsty Hughes