As 2023 draws to a close, it’s time to consider how the upcoming UK General Election and European Elections in 2024 will herald a new beginning for EU-UK relations.
While the dust has for the most part settled on the political earthquake of Brexit, its long-term impact and the UK’s relationship with the EU remains somewhat undefined. The Withdrawal Agreement, Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), and the recently agreed Windsor Framework to resolve trade disruption between Britain and Northern Ireland provide a framework for relations, however, the extent of cooperation could undoubtably be deepened.
Political change on both sides of the Channel
Based on current polling, it appears highly likely that the Labour Party will form the next UK Government following the General Election next year. At this stage it is uncertain when exactly the election will take place, but evidence is increasingly pointing to a May poll.
The EU is also holding its five-yearly elections in June 2024, meaning the European Parliament will consist of many new MEPs, with less than half of the current composition due to be re-elected. Following the European Elections, a new set of Commissioners will be appointed by the European Parliament to form the next administration of the European Commission, which is responsible for the initiation of all new EU law. This is significant as personal relationships between the UK Foreign Secretary and the European Commissioner in charge of engagement with the UK has been important throughout the Brexit negotiations and in the early years of the post-Brexit era. The amicable working relationship between former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič reportedly played a key role in finalising an agreement on the Windsor Framework in February, and new Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, has set a similarly emollient tone. The number of moving pieces on both sides of the Channel make it difficult, if not impossible, to say who will oversee EU-UK relations by the end of 2024.
Domestic considerations for Labour
In the run-up to the next general election, Labour will want to avoid re-opening Brexit as a campaign issue at all costs. However, a Labour-led UK Government will calculate that it is in their interest to engage more closely with the EU if it is to meet the priorities set out by Starmer this week in a speech to the Resolution Foundation. Starmer put economic growth rather than public spending at the heart of Labour’s plan and it is hard to see a pathway to growth without better access to the UK’s biggest trading partner. Notably, the revision of the TCA will take place in 2025 or 2026, and Starmer has signalled his intention to seek a closer trading relationship having previously described the current TCA arrangement as “too thin”.
That said, closer EU cooperation would also need to take into account constitutional sensitivities in Northern Ireland, where the Democratic and Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to resume power-sharing since Sein Fein won the most Assembly seats in May 2022. They have rejected a new arrangement until their concerns around the Windsor Framework’s Irish Sea trade rules are addressed. The DUP favoured Brexit and is likely to be sceptical of deeper engagement with the EU, and would certainly take issue with any steps which they perceive will weaken the UK. On the other hand, Sein Fein would certainly favour closer alignment with the EU as this would mean closer alignment with the Republic of Ireland, therefore, strengthening the case for Irish unity.
A shift to the political right in the EU
In recent years there has been a general shift towards the political extremes across EU Member States, perhaps best exemplified by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party winning the Italian election in October 2022 and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV) winning the most seats in the Dutch election last month. Additionally, there have been gains for far-right parties in Finland, Greece, Austria, France and Germany in recent elections. In the European Elections in June, gains are expected for right-leaning and far-right political groups such as the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID). The Left (GUE/NGL) political group is also anticipated to do well at the expense of more moderate blocs such as the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and Renew Europe. This polarising trend means that the centre-ground is expected to lose out in the next European Parliament to far-right and far-left parties, with the far-right making particularly significant gains.
A shift to the right in the European Parliament, and European politics more broadly, could generate friction with a move to the centre-left in the form of a Labour-led UK Government, which may prove to be a sticking point for deeper cooperation.
Moving pieces on both sides of the Channel can be challenging to navigate, but also presents 2024 as a unique opportunity to simultaneously shape policy for the next 5 years in both jurisdictions.
Engagement and influence with policymakers: the time is now
It is important for organisations to not lose sight of the new opportunities and challenges ahead to influence policymakers in London and Brussels, and to have their voices heard by new players. By drawing on our expertise and political insight within our EU and UK Public Affairs teams, Whitehouse is already preparing clients by mapping out the next European Parliament to lay the groundwork for effective engagement following the European Elections in June, and the UK General Election which must take place before the 28th of January 2024.
For more information on how to engage with policymakers in the EU, please contact our Associate Director for European Affairs, Laura Contin (firstname.lastname@example.org).
More information on our work with the Labour Party can be found at Whitehouse’s Labour Forum.