The World Post-Brexit: Where do EU-UK Relations Stand After Their Break-up?

By Laura de Boer

This article is the first of a short publication series in which articles written by the new editorial team will be showcased. This first article is written by Laura de Boer (Dutch, cohort 2021/2023), currently doing her first semester at the University of Uppsala.

Ever since the United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum in 2016, Brexit has been a prominent topic in media and public discourses. Since the UK officially is no longer an EU member state, however, news reports on the topic have seemingly died down. National news agencies in Europe have largely refrained from writing about the situation, apart from the occasional articles on supply chains or the situation in Northern Ireland.  As the eleven month anniversary of the end of the transition period is approaching, this article will discuss the most noteworthy developments and current standings of EU-UK relations. 

Migration and movement of European and British citizens

One of the major aims of Brexit was limiting immigration from EU member states and to ‘take back control’ over the UK’s borders. To achieve this, the UK government introduced a point-based migration system, in which applicants are evaluated on their language skills, qualifications, and job prospects. Students from the EU member states are still welcome, although they are required to apply for a visa and face increased tuition fees, as they are no longer eligible for a home fee status.

However, the transition to this new system has not been without its flaws. The rules are unclear and may cause confusion, which can cause harm to EU citizens and UK citizens alike. A few months after the UK withdrew from the European Customs Union, there have been reports of EU travellers being denied entry and getting detained, sometimes unjustly.

Furthermore, stricter border controls have been limiting the ease of access to the UK, which has caused several problems. For instance, the logistics sector is currently facing a shortage of lorry drivers, which has put a strain on fuel and food supplies. Although the role of the current pandemic is far from insignificant in this aspect, one should not underestimate the integral part Brexit has played, seeing as other sectors, that do not include regular border crossings, are also faced with similar problems.

Trade and borders

Not only did the UK leave the European Union Customs Union, but it also left the European Single Market behind, just as the many laws, regulations, and trade deals that were tied to it. As a result, the UK was required to form new trade deals with international partners and, of course, the European Union itself. 

As of September, many of the UK’s new trade deals outside of the European Union have been largely identical to the ones the country had before. However, various deals with Japan, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and, most notably, Australia have slightly improved the island nation’s economic prospects.

On the other hand, economic relations with the European Union – UK’s biggest trading partner– have been more difficult. Since the start of this year, arrangements in areas such trade, intellectual property, public procurement, and several others, fall under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). While the TCA provides free trade in goods and limited market access for both sides, it ensures that the UK remains outside of the European Single Market and the European Customs Union. Recently, the TCA has been under dispute and the UK has opted for renegotiation because of the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol

The subject of Northern Ireland has been one of the heavily discussed issues of the UK’s withdrawal from Europe. Both sides agreed that a hard border on the Irish island had to be avoided, honouring the ‘Good Friday Agreements’. Therefore, the Northern Ireland protocol was initiated to ensure that there would be no new checks on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In practice, this meant that Northern Ireland remained part of the European Single Market and that the customs border now lies within the UK itself, namely in the Irish Sea separating the two islands. This has caused growing discontent among Northern Irish Unionists who do not want to see their country become distanced from the rest of the UK. It seems clear that this issue is far from resolved and will be a significant factor in the EU-UK relationship for the foreseeable future.

Friendships and Alliances

One final aspect that is worth highlighting in this article is the current standing of EU-UK relationships in terms of their military alliances. One of the most prominent examples of this has been the AUKUS agreements between Australia, the UK, and the United States. Although not directly related to the effects of Brexit, AUKUS has caused increased tension between the UK and France and is an example of their strenuous relationship. Therefore, let us take a short look at AUKUS and analyse how it relates to EU-UK relations.

‘AUKUS’ refers to a security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Simply put, Australia is to invest in nuclear-powered submarines that are developed by Britain and are enhanced by US technology. This pact aims to strengthen Australia’s strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region and to create a counterbalance to China’s military presence in the area. However, in signing this deal, Australia had to cancel their earlier submarine agreement with France, causing a row between the allies. France even withdrew its ambassadors from the US and Australia, something that was considered an ‘exceptional decision’. The US ambassador has recently returned to his post, however, it seems unlikely that Australia will go back on the cancelled €56 billion contract.

Although the UK was seemingly out of France’s crosshairs when it decided to recall its ambassadors, this does not mean that things are going well between the two nations. Brexit was one of the reasons that made it possible for Britain to be part of the AUKUS pact, and it sets out a precedent for many strategic pacts that Britain will sign without the European Union. Furthermore, AUKUS fits into British Prime Minister Johnson’s goal of creating a ‘Global Britain’, in which the UK will be one of the most dominant nations with regards to military power. Lastly, with Britain’s reorientation towards the Atlantic, European nations may feel more inclined to work together and improve the continent’s strategic autonomy thus leaving both the US and the UK outside of future operations.

So where do we stand now?

The matters of migration and trade illustrate that the Brexit transition has faced numerous difficulties that complicate the EU-UK relationship. Of course, it was well-known that leaving the European Union would be no easy feat and that there would be challenges ahead, challenges that would be easier to overcome with the right level of cooperation. However, the two parties seem often to be standing opposed to each other rather than in agreement. Whether it is on topics such as migration and borders, or fisheries and sausages, the divorce has seemingly not provided the space for either partner to make concessions without fear of seeming too cooperative. Something that may harm any possibility of working together towards common interests in the future.


Picture Credit: EuroNews

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