Navigating the winds of change: Why the 2024 European elections matter for post-Brexit UK

In just a few weeks, EU citizens across the 27 Member States will head to the polls for their 5-yearly vote to elect the next raft of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). While it can be easy for those in the UK to overlook the European elections in the post-Brexit context and with a general election drawing closer, the 2024 European elections hold notable importance.


Political polarisation

Significant gains for the political-right and far-right are expected at the expense of the centre-ground and centre-left, meaning the European Parliament will be more fragmented in comparison to the 2019-2024 term, which will inevitably create a more challenging and hostile environment for MEPs to reach compromises on draft legislation. MEPs will also be responsible for appointing Commissioners to the European Commission, which is the institution responsible for initiating EU legislation.

But what does this mean for the UK? After all, this will be the first European elections in which the UK is not involved. Additionally, UK voters are widely expected to vote in a Labour Government and polling suggests that two-thirds of voters will vote for a centre-left party.

This divergence in political ideology could set the stage for potential obstacles to deeper cooperation between the EU and the UK. However, amidst these differences, global shifts and alignment of policy priorities will necessitate an increasingly close partnership.


Closer cooperation despite differences

The EU and UK have continued to be close business partners since Brexit despite some challenges generated by additional bureaucracy and trade divergences between Britain and Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland / Ireland Protocol.

Brexit has also ushered in a new era of trade and regulatory frameworks, with current discussions revolving around the impact of the new post-Brexit checks and custom framework for animals, plants and plant products – the Border Target Operating Model (BTOM).

On broader issues such as security and defence relations have arguably grown closer, perhaps best illustrated by the EU and UK’s uniform support for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian military aggression.

With this in mind, a common thread interwoven through EU policies in recent years is an emphasis on ‘strategic autonomy’. While this is a loosely defined concept, it is broadly understood to endorse a worldview in which the EU must de-risk its supply chains from ‘strategic rivals’ (China and Russia) and to only be closely interconnected with strategic partners. The UK clearly fits the bill as a strategic ally meaning there is likely to not only be continued cooperation but also an enhanced partnership.


Impact on policy

In practice, this could materialise in the form of the EU and UK looking to align the rollout of their respective Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms, which are scheduled to be introduced in 2026 and 2027, respectively. After all, both the EU and UK share the same broad ambition of net neutrality by 2050, and industry stakeholders have highlighted concern that the differences in timelines could prove challenging.

Additionally, on emerging technologies such as AI, the EU will roll out its AI Act from 2026 while UK’s sector-specific regulators are in the process of implementing their AI strategies. While the EU and UK approaches to AI differ in some ways, the substance is for the most part the same as both approaches entail a risk-based approach to managing AI innovations. Will the EU’s more prescriptive framework for AI regulation influence the UK’s trajectory, or will the UK continue to forge its own path?

2024 will be a year in which businesses will need to navigate the winds of change, and with current estimates predicting that the 55% of MEPs elected during the European elections will be newcomers, there has seldom been a better time to build connections and shape policy priorities.


Labour stance, and what does it all mean?

The stance of Keir Starmer and the Labour Party adds an intriguing dimension to the unfolding picture. While signalling openness to closer cooperation with the EU, Starmer has emphasised the UK’s reluctance to be a ‘rule-taker’ reflecting the delicate balance between UK alignment with the EU and autonomy from the EU.

The upcoming European elections will serve as a litmus test for the resilience and adaptability of EU-UK relations in the post-Brexit landscape. Want to know more about how the European elections will impact EU-UK relations?

Whitehouse is hosting a webinar on 15th May with the President of the European Movement in Scotland, former Vice-President of the European Parliament and Labour MEP, David Martin, Jannike Wachowiak from UK in a Changing Europe, and our very own EU Associate Director, Laura Contin.

Sign up to tune in here!

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