In the post-Brexit era, it’s time for the opt-in

by Rebecca Christie

The UK can use its regional leadership to shift the post-Brexit landscape towards cooperation.

The UK’s time in the European Union focused on the opt-out as Britain was granted permanent exemptions from some of the EU’s core collective goals.  It chose not to participate in four of the bloc’s collective agreements, notably the euro common currency and the Schengen borderless travel arrangement. The EU acceded so as to protect the Single Market and preserve the common ground that had been won.

Britain left the EU and its Single Market anyway. Brexit happened; it has taken place. And it is now time for the UK to shift its mindset from where it wants to diverge to where it wants to work together. While it faces many unresolved challenges related to its exit, they are increasingly forward-looking. Even the ongoing tensions over customs arrangements in Northern Ireland are increasingly shifting to what future economic relations will be, not how to separate from what was there before. As the Institute for Government wrote in April, the UK needs to decide which departments will handle EU relations, what it wants its trade relationships to look like and how British regulators and politicians will relate to each other without Brussels in the middle.

Happily, there are some readily available areas of renewed cooperation. In July, the UK will host the fourth summit of the European Political Community. It has been a mainstay in the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, which includes all but three of the EU’s 27 current member states, and in 2024 it rejoined the Horizon Europe community of researchers. Given the political uncertainty in Washington, Britain’s leadership is especially needed to help the region respond to the ongoing war in Ukraine. As Samir Puri at Chatham House noted, supporting EU defence initiatives is one of the ways the UK can coordinate support for Ukraine and show willing to set the tone for how the West responds.

Strategic realignment

Economically, shifting to a growth mindset requires more effort. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has equivocated on how it will work with Brussels, choosing to play it safe ahead of general elections due to happen by January. Campaigning to avoid incurring the wrath of single-issue voters has downsides, however. For the UK to exert its influence in ways to which it had historically been accustomed, it needs to be for something and not just against. As long as the conversation rests around fears of “too much” alignment and not what level of alignment best serves UK interests, the economy will suffer Voters may not be paying too much attention, but markets certainly are. Fitch, the ratings agency, has warned that the new government will face weak growth and constrained budget options.

Re-establishing working relationships will be essential. Starmer has said he would like to improve strategic policy ties to the EU if his party wins, and perhaps consider joining EU foreign affairs meetings. This could be a welcome step towards more cooperation. However, EU officials will be reluctant to let the UK back to the big table unless there are signs that the solidarity goes further.

For the moment, there is remarkably little day to day contact between UK officials and their counterparts within Britain’s biggest trading partner. This is one of the biggest losses of the Brexit process, and it has sidelined the UK thoroughly. Attention in Brussels has instead shifted toward Washington in key areas like green-transition subsidies and technology regulation. The US, not the UK, is the point of comparison for how to manage economic security and the risks that come with doing business with China.

Scotland showing the way

Britain has made rebuilding its working relationships harder with 2020’s Internal Market Act, which restricts the autonomy of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. While it is a good idea for the UK’s central and devolved governments to get on the same page, it’s hard for anyone to rebuild ties when the focus is on specifying what policymakers need to avoid instead of supporting how to do what they can.

The UK’s nations and regions represent an opportunity for economic reconnection to Brussels, if London is willing to trust them to work constructively and get past the differences over budgets, transportation, and other domestic issues. In Scotland, where independence and re-joining the EU are actively discussed even if showing no sign of gaining momentum, pro-European sentiments might lead to a natural rebuilding of connections that could, in turn, lead to improvements for the whole UK Instead of sparking another circle of dissent, a better working relationship with Brussels could also lead to a better working relationship with London. Given all of Britain’s attachment to Sterling, which seems likely to put paid to any chance of Scottish EU membership in the foreseeable future, working to make the most of these warm feelings would be a win-win situation.

The UK faces a lot of domestic uncertainty in 2024, given the leadership changes taking place or coming up across all levels of government. Continually orienting around Britain’s separation puts the UK in a weak position when it comes to working with Brussels. The alternative is to find the strength and confidence of actively looking for ways to join forces. Working with Brussels on what comes next – and where the UK can join in – would be the best way to show that Brexit really got done.

Rebecca Christie is a Senior Fellow of the EU-based economic organisation Bruegel.

This article was first published on 21 May in The Herald and is part of the Scotland-Europe Initiative.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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