LONDON — It was the bright smiles and mutual critiques of two banker brothers in their 40s that marked the start of a new era in relations between the United Kingdom and the EU.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron seemed natural partners when they clashed at a friendly press conference in Paris in March, announcing a major £478m package to deter migrants to cross the Channel.
The contrast with the petty name-calling of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss eras was obvious.
Sunak’s warm and productive summit with Europe’s most high-profile leader confirmed a more collaborative relationship with the EU and its national capitals after the turmoil of the Brexit era. Less than two weeks earlier, the historic Windsor Framework Agreement between the British Prime Minister and Brussels had finally resolved post-Brexit trade problems in Northern Ireland.
“I hope that (the agreement) opens up further areas of constructive engagement, dialogue and cooperation with the EU,” Sunak told POLITICO. on the way at the Paris summit.
Six months later, his words were confirmed.
As well as the Windsor and Channel framework agreements, Britain signed a memorandum of understanding with Brussels on regulatory cooperation in financial services and this month joined Britain’s huge Horizon and Copernicus scientific research programmes. the EU, amounting to 96 billion euros, a major result for the United Kingdom. research and university sectors after two years of uncertainty.
Next on the agenda is a cooperation agreement between the British government and the European border protection agency Frontex – another measure that brings Britain closer to the EU in a small but significant way.
The agreement, confirmed on Tuesday by Interior Minister Suella Braverman, is expected to be similar to other agreements concluded by Frontex with third countries, such as Albania, which allow the sharing of data on migration flows.
“We have seen concrete steps created by a new climate of good faith,” said a London-based European diplomat, who requested anonymity – like others in this article – to speak candidly about diplomatic relations.
“We’ve missed that before, and so that’s the Sunak effect. I wouldn’t say he’s done an incredible job, but he’s changed the mindset – and so he’s changed everything.”
A new hope
As well as returning his focus to relations with his fellow leaders, Sunak has impressed European diplomats with his willingness to confront the vocal Brexit wing of his own party, which has long seemed – in the eyes of Europeans – exercise disproportionate influence over successive Conservative prime ministers. .
Earlier this year, Sunak angered right-wing Tories by abandoning a controversial pledge to scrap or rewrite thousands of EU-era regulatory laws that remain in the UK code by the end of this year, to the delight of European capitals.
“Improving relations is based on the fact that there is now a willingness to find solutions and engage in a way that did not exist under previous administrations,” said a second London-based EU diplomat .
Negotiations continue between Sunak’s government and Brussels over other outstanding disputed issues, including tough new tariffs due to be imposed in January on electric vehicles (EVs) shipped domestically and abroad of the United Kingdom and which do not comply with strict electrical energy supply requirements. batteries.
The specialist committee on UK-EU trade will meet to discuss the issue on Wednesday, with UK ministers increasingly hopeful that Brussels will agree to scrap the end-of-year deadline after intense lobbying from German car manufacturers and its own European Trade Commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis.
Catherine Barnard, professor of European law at Cambridge University, said that overall Sunak had overseen a “much more positive relationship” with Europe, even if it was conducted on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. ‘use “.
“It seems much more positive and it gives meaning to treating our European neighbors as friends rather than enemies,” she said.
“But we are not talking about a comprehensive and in-depth renegotiation either, quite the contrary.”
No. 10 Downing Street acknowledges that the change is less profound than some media observers – or disgruntled Tory MPs – would like to think.
A No 10 aide said Sunak saw his diplomatic efforts as “normal government”, noting that “we’ve just forgotten what that looks like” after the turmoil of the post-Brexit era.
“I know it follows Brexit and all this nonsense we’ve seen over the last few years, and it’s nice to see a little victory or a little argument to bridge that divide, but that’s just normal government relations ” said the assistant.
Sunak, of course, is trailing by 18 points in opinion polls and faces an uphill fight to stay in power in a general election due next year.
But his opponent, British Labor leader Keir Starmer, has made it clear that he also wants closer cooperation with Europe if he takes power.
Starmer said this month that a future Labor government would use the next review of the post-Brexit trade deal, expected in 2025 or 2026, as an opportunity to reduce border controls through the signing of a veterinary agreement and increase mobility between the UK and EU for some. sectors of the economy.
And he told a conference in Montreal last weekend that “we don’t want to move away from the EU” in areas such as working conditions or environmental standards.
The comments were seen by Conservative ministers as evidence that Starmer would bring the UK even further into the EU’s orbit than he has publicly admitted – something the Labor leader denies. Conservative campaigners hope to use such comments in their campaign attacks, portraying Starmer as an anti-Brexit Europhile.
But some observers suggest such political attacks are ironic, given the direction Sunak is heading. Barnard, quoted above, says that “what Keir Starmer was saying in Canada last week is pretty much a description of the current situation.”
A senior moderate Tory MP said that despite attacks on Starmer, Sunak was “not too ideological when it comes to the EU”.
“There has always been a belief in Brussels that we would inevitably come back to them, and we are seeing that a little bit now,” they said.
Still, it is unclear how close Britain and the EU can get without a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of Brexit – something all parties insist is not on the table.
One area of agreement is the need to strengthen security and defense ties, with next year’s European Political Community summit in Britain providing a potential opportunity for further announcements.
Some in Westminster believe this could take the form of Britain joining individual projects of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation – a body which coordinates the bloc’s security and defense policy. The European Council has invited Britain to join its “military mobility project” alongside Canada, Norway and the United States in November 2022.
Anand Menon, director of the British think tank Changing Europe, said he was “not convinced” of the potential benefits for Britain, given the UK’s current position within NATO and other organizations.
He believes that the British government will do everything possible to find mutually beneficial areas of cooperation with Brussels.
“The EU is relatively happy with the status quo,” Menon said. “It’s only in the UK that people are saying we need to get closer… There are so many bigger fish for the EU to contend with.”