The State of EU-UK Relations – and does Scotland get a say?

At a cursory glance, the state of EU-UK relations is a lot better than a year ago. The Windsor Framework, resolving long-standing differences over the Northern Ireland protocol, was agreed in February. And the UK will re-join the Horizon research programme, and the Copernicus space programme on 1st January 2024, writes Kirsty Hughes.

The relationship is also now strong enough to cope both with bizarre diplomatic behaviour from Rishi Sunak in cancelling a meeting last week with Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, due to a spat over the Elgin marbles, and with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying that the EU and UK ‘goofed up’ over Brexit – predictably dismissed by Sunak.

There are also some more serious attempts under way not to create even more barriers between the EU and UK. Even under the Tory government, Jeremy Hunt is said to be looking at introducing a UK carbon border adjustment mechanism in 2026 to ensure the EU’s one, currently in soft launch mode and due to enter into full force that year, doesn’t leave the UK at a disadvantage.

Under a Labour government, if that is indeed the result of the 2024 general election, a push for stronger EU-UK tries is also expected. But since Keir Starmer has insisted repeatedly that the UK will not re-join the EU’s single market or customs union if he is in government, then the scope for major improvements is limited. EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier emphasised in an interview last month, that without any shift on these Brexit red lines, then the trade and cooperation agreement provides limited scope for serious change – a line that Brussels officials also regularly repeat.

Beyond Starmer wanting to agree a veterinary deal to align with EU standards, and talking vaguely about not wanting to diverge from EU laws, there may indeed not be much more to be done (even if some welcome changes come such as on youth mobility and the Erasmus scheme). But there are other straws in the wind. France indicated recently that it was open to a delay in a 10% tariff on electric vehicles sales between the UK and EU due to come into effect at the start of 2024. This doesn’t mean the EU will suddenly be open to single market cherry-picking if and when the UK has a more reliable interlocuter in the form of a Labour government. But it suggests some flexibility at least.

Some in the UK hold out stronger hopes that the review of the trade and cooperation agreement due in 2026 will allow bigger changes, but Barnier’s point remains.

Still, both on the climate side and on foreign and security policy, there is more scope to strengthen, and potentially, formalise relations. There is, of course, already discussion and consultation on key security issues from Ukraine to Gaza (and in the NATO context). But, as German politician and former European Parliament president, Martin Schulz, said last week, there is a need for more formal and structured relations between the UK and EU to tackle the thinner, weaker links that have existed due to, and since, Brexit. This will be easier to construct under a new Labour government.

The Unbalanced Relationship

All of these actual and potential developments are important, albeit much more so for the UK than the EU. And a Starmer government may succeed in stabilising and strengthening the EU-UK relationship. But, outside of the EU, no UK politician can change the basic arithmetic, that the UK is now the smaller, weaker partner in a relationship with the much much bigger (in population and trade terms) EU bloc.

That will not only impact on any future negotiations over revisions to the UK-EU trade deal, or adjustments within the TCA context, it also speaks to the UK’s wider loss of influence due to Brexit.

The EU is facing a potentially stormy European Council summit at the end of next week, as Hungary’s Orban threatens to torpedo opening accession talks with Ukraine. But the UK, which would like to see these talks start (with all due irony given Brexit), has no role and no influence over how the EU summit and decisions will unfold. Nor does it have any say over the related and equally neuralgic issue of adjustments to the EU budget and funds for Ukraine.

The UK was a big, influential player in the EU including on earlier EU enlargements. Now, it is a sidelined observer.

Another unhappy result of Brexit is the narrowing of the UK’s European debate. Where media, thinktanks, academics, politicians and others would, pre-Brexit, have been following EU political debates and decisions in considerable detail, now this is a more minority pursuit. And the state of the EU-UK relationship is of much more interest and attention to many in the UK than the often crucial, multiple and complex developments in EU politics. Yet, as many have pointed out, the EU has been changing rapidly and substantially in the years since Brexit under the whole gamut of internal and external challenges that it is facing. It is the UK’s biggest, most important – and bigger – neighbour.

Where is Scotland in the EU-UK Relationship?

In Scotland, there is considerable attention given to the way the EU-UK relationship is evolving, and to whether and how Scottish politicians or the Scottish government have a say. But Scotland is subject to the same post-Brexit influence as in the rest of the UK i.e. a tendency to focus on the state of EU-UK relations, and EU-Scotland relations, more than wider EU politics.

And the UK government continues to pay little or no attention to the views of the devolved governments on EU-UK affairs. This week (4 and 5 December) the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly (PPA) met in London with delegations from Westminster and the European Parliament. There is one Scottish MP on that body and the devolved parliaments send observers. It’s not much and, anyway, the PPA is not exactly hitting the headlines.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government’s proclaimed aims of aligning with EU laws in devolved areas despite Brexit, have been stymied both by the operation of the UK’s internal market act but also by an apparent reluctance of the Scottish government to give priority to what is actually quite an awkward task.

There is, of course, a wider debate in Scotland that partly links to pro-Europeans elsewhere in the UK who campaign for the UK to re-join the EU, and mainly links to the political goal of independence in the EU. For now, the likelihood of the UK re-joining the EU in the next decade (or even two) is pretty unlikely.

In contrast, if Scottish views on independence shift towards a clear and sustained majority for becoming an independent state again, then the path to the EU is much more straightforward. In Brussels, and elsewhere in the EU, there is still sympathy for a pro-EU, remain-voting Scotland being taken out of the EU by the overarching UK Brexit vote.

There’s also an interesting EU-UK dimension to this relative warmth towards Scotland.

Keir Starmer hopes both to win the general election, and to have more Labour MPs in Scotland (not too hard a goal given Labour has just two in Scotland). And Starmer wants to build more positive, stronger, EU-UK relations.

There could be an argument for putting Scottish voices to the front in that case, if Starmer is Prime Minister and looking to improve the UK’s damaged reputation in the EU. But the problem with that is immediately apparent. Scottish voters are even more in favour of re-joining the EU than English voters – and much more consistently so. And much of that pro-EU opinion is also pro-independence – and reflected in the SNP/Green position on independence in the EU. Given Starmer’s Brexit-respecting red lines, the soft power of Scotland in Brussels, is, sadly, likely to be ignored not engaged with by a Labour government.

Still, if a Starmer government manages to reduce some of the Brexit trade barriers between the EU and UK, albeit at the margins, that will also make some of the arguments about the England-Scotland border in the case of independence, a bit easier to manage. And if Starmer surprises us all and re-joins the EU single market in a second term, then the border argument starts to weaken and substantially dissolve (albeit the customs union is a serious barrier in its own right).

For now, the state of the EU-UK relationship is improving (from a very low base) but the same cannot be said for UK influence in or on Europe. That is unlikely to change any time soon under a Starmer government. And whether Scottish views will be included more in the evolution of that relationship is an open question as far as the low-key details of the EU-UK trade relationship are concerned, but a rather clearer ‘no’ on the question of re-joining the EU or its single market.

First published in the author’s EU-Scotland Newsletter on Substack

Featured image via Scottish Government flickr CC BY-SA 2.0