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Time for a reset: Could a new prime minister repair the EU–UK relationship?

Fabian Zuleeg , Emily Fitzpatrick

Date: 29/07/2022
Brexit might not be as integral to the political identities of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak as it has been for Boris Johnson. Still, the two leadership candidates are closely linked to Johnson’s administration. Even with new leadership, a radical reset of EU–UK relations is unlikely.

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on 7 July that he would resign as UK prime minister, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak are the two remaining candidates vying to be the Conservative Party’s next leader and, consequently, his successor. In the past months, there was a consensus in Brussels that for as long as Johnson remains in office, there is little potential for repairing the deeply fractured EU–UK relationship. Now that the end is in sight, does a new prime minister offer any hope of repairing the damage Johnson will leave behind?

EU–UK relations take a backseat

Antagonistic relations with the EU have been a cornerstone of Johnson’s popularity. His star rose as a leader of the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum, and he won the 2019 general election on a promise to Get Brexit Done. While prime minister, Johnson had a habit of opting for inflammatory clashes with the EU when he needed to reinvigorate his Conservative base.

Truss’ and Sunak’s political profiles are not as closely linked to Brexit. There has been limited to no discussion in the recent leadership debates on how they would approach relations with the EU. Instead, the focus of this leadership contest centres on domestic issues like tax cuts and the cost-of-living crisis.

This omission of the EU from the debate is not necessarily a positive. Despite Brexit’s increasingly obvious negative implications for the UK economy – it is expected to be the G7’s slowest growing economy in 2023 –, neither candidate has put forward any meaningful strategy for a new, more constructive approach to EU–UK relations. In fact, both seem to implicitly agree with Johnson’s handling of the relationship. Johnson was obliged to resign as prime minister due to his (mis)handling of an internal Tory scandal, following on from Partygate. His handling of the EU–UK relationship, or the heavily criticised Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB), was not at issue.

Truss embodies continuity

Indeed, Truss, the frontrunner in the leadership contest, never resigned from her post as foreign secretary and continues to serve in Johnson’s caretaker government. Formerly a Remainer, she has worked hard the past year to demonstrate her ‘Brexit credentials’. Truss took over as the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator in December 2021. While an initial effort was made to thaw relations with the EU regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), Truss’ introduction of the NIPB in June has won her few friends in Brussels, where it is viewed as a violation of international law.

Truss consulted with the Conservative Party’s European Research Group (ERG) before bringing forward the bill, and many in Brussels believe that her motivation in progressing the legislation was to solidify her chances as Johnson’s successor among the Eurosceptic factions of the Conservative Party.

Reliant on the Conservative Party’s Eurosceptic wing, it is unlikely that Truss could roll back on her hard-line approach if she becomes prime minister. This will further damage the EU–UK relationship, as the EU has warned of retaliatory measures should the NIPB become law. More Johnsonian tactics of brinksmanship could be expected as a trade war with the EU becomes more likely. Additionally, by introducing the bill, Truss seriously damaged her credibility with her European counterpart, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. Any rebuilding of relations would be difficult under Truss’ leadership.

Prospect for a reset under Sunak?

Former Chancellor Sunak has maintained a greater distance from the toxic NIP dispute. Despite campaigning for the UK to leave the EU in 2016, Sunak has not made Euroscepticism a cornerstone of his leadership campaign to the same extent as Johnson and now Truss. As such, there could be scope to rebuild relations under a Sunak premiership. Reportedly, while chancellor, Sunak opposed the NIPB and expressed concerns regarding the cost of a potential EU–UK trade war on the UK economy. He did not vote on the bill on its second reading and has been referred to as the “least worse” candidate by Member of Parliament Stephen Farry of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party.

Sunak’s minimal interactions with his EU counterparts mean that, if selected to be prime minister, EU–UK relations will begin from a more neutral starting point. Given that he seems less interested in finding an immediate solution on the NIP, space could be created to de-dramatise and de-politicise the relationship. If the relations were relegated to a ‘third-order’ or bureaucratic level, managed within the formal governance structures of the EU–UK Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), EU and UK officials might be able to find joint solutions to many of the current technical problems regarding the Protocol and other trade issues.

Additionally, Sunak is less reliant on the support of the far-right, Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. If he were to run as the Tory candidate in the next general election, he would likely target the traditional centre-right voters. A large proportion of such voters have turned away from the Conservative Party, unhappy with Johnson’s leadership, to vote for the Liberal Democrats. This was evidenced in the recent by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton. A more centrist Tory government could mean a more stable, predictable political and economic partner for the EU.

However, while Sunak may be seeking to portray himself as the more reasonable of the two, he also subscribes to the policies of the current Conservative government on migration and ‘taking back control’. Both Truss and Sunak have pledged to be tough on migration and to continue the UK’s controversial Rwanda asylum scheme. This signals trouble for the European Convention on Human Rights and, consequently, the Good Friday Agreement that safeguards peace in Northern Ireland. Additionally, both have attested to doing away with all the remaining EU laws in the UK statute book by 2025 at the latest. Sunak also commended Johnson’s approach to EU–UK relations, awarding him “a full 10 for delivering Brexit”.

No good choices

Despite differences between the two candidates, it should be remembered that Truss and Sunak held the two highest posts in Johnson’s government. Until last month, both stood by Johnson as he tore through 47 years of the UK’s amicable relations with its former European partners. When considering how to engage with the next prime minister across the Channel come September, neither option look promising.

The EU–UK relationship has been permanently damaged from the past six years of the Brexit process. Trust is at an all-time low, and the EU is understandably reluctant to engage in any form of policy cooperation with the UK, which it no longer views as a reliable partner. In the UK, Euroscepticism continues to have a firm hold on the Conservative Party and its membership. There is little appetite for a more constructive relationship with the EU. Even Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, is unwilling to come out in favour of a re-joining the EU Customs Union and/or Single Market. Brussels is left wanting for neighbourly relations based on meaningful engagement and mutual interest in building a lasting and strategic partnership.

In the short term, any reset of the EU–UK relationship is unlikely, particularly as the seemingly intractable question of the NIP remains open. Instead, the European Commission should continue to make clear to the new UK leader the consequences of acting on the NIPB. An agreement between the Council of the EU and the European Parliament on the proposed Regulation to empower the Commission to take enforcement measures through the WA and TCA will show that the EU is serious about its willingness to take retaliatory action.

Looking further ahead, no matter which candidate wins, they will likely call a general election within a year to legitimise their leadership. It is unlikely that any agreement on the NIP will be reached before then. Once again, Brussels remains in waiting mode until internal British politics settle down and genuine discussions can resume.

Emily Fitzpatrick is a Junior Policy Analyst in the Europe’s Political Economy programme at the European Policy Centre.

Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive and Chief Economist at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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