Can Britain smooth the ruffled feathers of a post-Brexit EU?
The chances of the UK striking key deals with Brussels are looking up, with many seeing new foreign secretary David Cameron as the latest step in a growing rapprochement, writes Lisa O’Carroll in Brussels
In her final key pre-Brexit speech in 2019, Ursula von der Leyen declared she would “always be a remainer”, insisting that Europe’s “bond of friendship” with the UK would remain unbreakable. In her hour-long “state of the union” address this year, the EU’s most senior executive official did not mention the UK once, despite common interests in Ukraine, the climate crisis, energy and China. It is a measure of how invisible the UK has become in Brussels. UK threats to unpick the Brexit deal, and years of toxic public EU-bashing by Boris Johnson when he was prime minister – and by his chief Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost – have left their scars. One senior diplomat says Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s vice-president, used to refer to his meetings with David Frost as his “weekly root canal appointments”. Another diplomat is more direct: “The UK is just not a topic of discussion any more in the EU … The only people, I would say, who talk about the British are the British.” However, last week’s appointment of David Cameron as foreign secretary offers hope for change. While some officials still splutter with disgust at mention of the B word, there is fresh intrigue about the arrival of the Europhile former prime minister, whose ill-fated attempts to wring concessions from the EU in February 2016 led to the referendum – but apparently not to the end of his career. Cameron’s first official appearance in Brussels is scheduled for 27 November, at a gathering of Nato foreign ministers; on that trip he may also get to talk to Šefčovič, the commissioner with responsibility for ongoing Brexit matters. Among senior officials there is a mood of anticipation about what someone of his international stature will bring to UK-EU relations. But in reality there is little chance of the trade deal being improved or reopened, whether Cameron remains in the Foreign Office after the next general election or a Labour minister takes over. Top of the agenda when Cameron does meet Šefčovič will be a 10% tariff due to be imposed from January under the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) on exports and imports of UK and EU electric vehicles. The UK and German car industries have been lobbying since March for a three-year suspension of the tariff, but the EU’s industry commissioner, Frenchman Thierry Breton, declared recently that there should be no special pleading for the car industry. The manufacturers argued that the rule of origin regime behind the tariff could be lifted by a “tweak” to one annex of the TCA. But sources inside the commission insist otherwise: “If you change the annex, you are changing the TCA.” Critics dismiss that as purism, but a deal will happen only with the support of French president Emmanuel Macron. “Practically speaking, the council [of EU leaders] work on consensus. So if Germany says A and France says B, it is going to be difficult,” says one source. There is more hope for a deal Labour leader Keir Starmer wants, which would remove the need for veterinary customs and standards checks on exports and, from the following year, imports of food and animal produce into Britain from the EU. Prime minister Rishi Sunak is not seeking this change. “The facility to add a veterinary deal is already in the TCA. If you see the TCA as a docking station, it would just be plugged in without changing the TCA,” says a source. But in practice that plug-in would be laden with political risk. “It would take years to negotiate. You’ve seen how difficult it was with the Northern Ireland protocol; this would be a painful process,” says one British insider. Some see alignment already happening at government level , citing the recent reversal of plans for a new UK safety mark to replace the bloc’s CE badge. But Joël Reland, who tracks regulatory divergence for the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe, believes that has little bearing on a veterinary deal. It is, he says, an example of active alignment: “The UK will now accept the CE mark in perpetuity, because that just makes life simpler for manufacturers. What still really matters is passive alignment, where the EU changes regulations, and the UK would have to follow. And the EU keeps changing stuff all the time.” The EU has, Reland adds, already introduced close to 30 new rules in the chemicals sector that have not been replicated by the UK. There is also little apparent chance of changing the TCA to give touring musicians back their pre-Brexit freedom to load kit in a van and tour the pubs and clubs of the continent, something Elton John and others have campaigned hard for. As far as the EU is concerned, music and theatre tours are services, and concessions here would open the door for all other services, according to sources. There does seem to be a glimmer of light in another field: work is ongoing on mutual agreement of professional qualifications, allowing British architects or accountants to practise in the EU once again. A deal on electric car tariffs is also expected to be announced within weeks, despite France’s objections. As former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was fond of saying: if there is a will there is a way. Sources point to how quickly a corner was turned in UK-EU relations when Sunak and former foreign secretary James Cleverly took office last autumn. The dispute over Northern Ireland trading arrangements saw a rapid resolution in February’s Windsor framework, and there was another big breakthrough in September with the return of the UK to the EU’s Horizon science research programme. The warm bond between Sunak and von der Leyen was on display at last month’s European Political Community conference in Granada. Sources joke that they no longer need to arrange bilaterals at big summits as they are in texting contact with each other and will often disappear down corridors at summits to discuss matters of mutual interest. “We have now seen real improvement in EU-UK relations – they really, really improved,” says David McAllister, chair of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “And this is very much appreciated, especially by people like myself who, despite Brexit, are very open and cordial towards the UK.” Paul Adamson of Brussels-based conference organiser Forum Europe says: “The UK is gradually realising that a constructive relationship with the EU is in everyone’s interests, although much public diplomacy and bridge-mending have still to be done.” Many, however, detect a lingering nervousness. “There is a definite improvement in relations, but it could quickly turn,” says one official who worked through the negotiations. “There is a sense still that the UK could still renege on its promises.” An example of this was the threat by Suella Braverman, when she was home secretary, to leave the European convention on human rights. This risked leading to termination or suspension of the UK’s post-Brexit policing pact with the EU, as human rights obligations underpin the trade and cooperation agreement. The UK’s departure has also changed the geopolitical dynamics. While much of the EU’s focus is now on eastern Europe, China and enlargement of the bloc, nothing really functions without support from France and Germany. “I think the country that misses the UK most may be Germany,” says one diplomat. “In the past they played a very good game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ with London, playing the ‘bad cop’ in regard to security and foreign policy.” Another senior diplomat adds: “David Cameron was very useful for Germany, because the UK could play the role of mediator in rows over the budget with France.”