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Europe back on the political agenda

EU Concept
Public Affairs
By Allie Renison

Europe is back on the British political agenda – in more ways than one. The next election may not be a Brexit affair, but its spectre still looms large with a hangover effect on the discourse of both major parties. 

Rishi Sunak this week is in Poland and Germany for defence talks - and to burnish the UK’s credentials on support for Ukraine- but skipping Brussels to maximise bilateral engagement with European capitals. The preference for engaging with EU countries over EU institutions is also palpable elsewhere, as the government in recent days appeared to spurn offers from the European Commission to open talks with the UK on an EU-wide youth mobility scheme. 

There is, however, more than meets the eye to what might seem like a no-brainer, including on what some Brussels watchers say is an ill-timed move from the Commission that takes little account of British election sensitivities. The offer itself has yet to be made in the sense that it is just a proposal to EU member states for a mandate to open negotiations with the UK. 

But that did not stop the government from publicly repudiating the idea, with a spokesperson quick to link it to the free movement of people which it had ended with Brexit. It generally favours instead a more segmented approach to repairing relations related to mobility, having made bilateral offers to several EU countries in this space. 

While some have been tempted to engage with the UK, and indeed have more legal space to do so now that it is out of the Single Market, political relations with Brussels have curtailed any real action on this front. Indeed, such bilateral overtures from London are likely behind the Commission’s pan-European approach. 

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly in an election year, the Labour Party has also poured cold water on the idea, asserting instead its commitment to cooperation with the EU that takes account of its ‘red lines’ on restoring free movement of people. In fact, where Labour have been willing to talk about Europe at all, the ‘red lines’ narrative has emerged more often than what it actively wants to repair. The Brexit effect lingers on. But behind closed doors, thinking is underway.

Indeed all the noises from Labour suggest  a pragmatic approach that looks at EU cooperation through the lens of big picture challenges which all sides must face. From security and defence to energy and the green transition, the domestic in-trays are full of challenges which will actively require more international collaboration going forward. With support for Ukraine and the decarbonisation agenda moving forward in both London and Brussels, joining up the dots is inevitable.  

For example, with the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, due to come into force in 2026, and the UK currently consulting on its own CBAM, it seems likely that a discussion about interaction of the two is inevitable. Indeed, given the impact of the EU’s scheme alone on both commodities trade and electricity markets across the Channel, implementation will absolutely require it.  

It is more than possible that such discussions will touch on our respective emissions trading schemes, reviving talk about formally linking the UK and EU’s ETS which split apart after Brexit. There is now precedent for doing so with Switzerland moving to link its own ETS with the EU’s in recent years. And the Brexit deal struck with the EU moreover, contains a mandatory review clause at the end of 2025.

So, while the UK-EU agenda is likely to see more tough talk rather than less before the election, Harold MacMillan’s infamous adage still holds: events, dear boy, events. With the additional unpredictability of where the US will end up after November, the next UK Government will have much to consider on the European horizon, whether it wants to or not.