Euro Channel: Undoing “EU ways of thinking”

Lord Frost, UK Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe, the successor body to the Department for Exiting the European Union, fuelled EU agitation this week when he told British officials that they remain “indoctrinated with EU ways of thinking”.

In comments made to the European Scrutiny Committee on Monday, Lord Frost called for a greater overhaul of EU red tape which he said is holding the UK back from being more competitive on the world stage. He said that Brexit gives the UK the opportunity to “do things differently” and called for the UK to develop its “own philosophy” to guide the UK’s post-Brexit identity. Indeed, the widespread understanding in the UK of the EU as a bureaucratic and over-institutionalised body was one of the motivating factors that led to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Inspired by Lord Frost’s comments, this week’s edition of Euro Channel looks at some of the most salient areas where views are shared, and the areas in which EU ways of thinking are already starting to unravel.

Climate Change

One of the most essential areas of agreement set out in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is the acknowledgement that climate change is the most serious challenge facing Europe’s and the UK’s society and economy. The TCA contains extensive references to the two sides’ commitment to fighting the climate crisis and includes measures to achieve economy-wide climate neutrality by 2050.

Both sides have also set out their own carbon-reduction targets in the last month. In April, the EU adopted a legally-binding target to cut carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. A week earlier, the UK government announced plans to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.

The Emission Trading Scheme is one of the most striking points of divergence on the issue of climate change. The UK decided to opt out of the scheme and is in the process of developing its own scheme, which has been criticised for being less ambitious than the EU’s counterpart. Putting aside nuances in targets and standards, however, both sides certainly share the same drive and ambition to take firm action on the issue. Therefore, we can expect London and Brussels to cooperate on the fight against climate change in the years ahead.

Foreign policy

Upon ratification of the TCA by the European Parliament, the EU shared its regret that the UK did not want the agreement to extend to foreign and security policy collaboration, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the EU’s weak competencies in this field. The EU also suffers from the double-edged sword of being a bloc of 27 independent member states who often struggle to speak with a single voice on foreign affairs.

This becomes evident when looking at the relations towards Russia. There are big divergences in the EU on how to deal with malignant Russian influence. For Germany, relations are more amicable, whilst Poland is closer to the UK’s policy towards Russia.  As set out in the government’s integrated review, the UK considers Russia “the most acute threat” to its security.

However, there is a shared concern between the two sides when it comes to China’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. Both sides are worried about China’s destabilising influence in the region, which could form the basis of a new partnership. Long-term cooperation in the region remains less clear, however, with the integrated review inferring more competition than partnership from the UK in the future.

Significant competition in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood remains unlikely, particularly in areas where there is strong interest and involvement from the US, who remains the UK’s closest international partner. The UK and the EU remain closely aligned in their approaches to international relations: both take root in the principles of multilateralism, democracy and a global economy.

Northern Ireland Protocol

The fallout over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is perhaps the clearest demonstration that the two bodies share different ways of thinking. It is no secret that the Protocol, which regulates the details of the trade regime between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has been riddled with complications since its inception.

The UK angered the EU back in March this year when it unilaterally decided to extend grace periods for Irish sea border checks. The EU condemned the action, launched an infringement procedure and called on the UK government to “act in good faith and fully implement the terms of the agreements which it has signed”.

During the committee hearing on Monday, Lord Frost said that talks between the EU and the UK on implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol have not been “hugely productive”. One EU spokesperson said that various soundbites, such as those made by Lord Frost, were “unhelpful” and that the EU would continue engaging in order to find a solution.

Post- Brexit rationale

There is a fine balance to be struck between cooperation and “doing things differently”, especially when significant divergence risks disrupting the level-playing field agreed by both sides. The legacy of the past and ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland demands cooperation on the Protocol, but on other issues there is an ideological and political need for the UK to distance itself from the EU, even when there are areas for potentially closer cooperation. It is this mindset that dominates thinking in the UK, and one which will likely prevail as the UK begins to emerge from the pandemic and forge its post-Brexit identity.

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