Brexit deal will put new strains on British-European relations

Senator Neale Richmond: Fine Gael Spokesperson on European Affairs and Chair of the Seanad Brexit Committee

As the Brexit talks enter a critical phase, we are still no nearer to knowing what the exact future of EU-UK relations will look like.  However, one thing is certain: whatever form that relationship takes following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it will continue to be hugely important.

As Prime Minister Theresa May has said:

“The British people voted to leave the EU, but they did not vote to leave Europe or in any way to take a step back from the world”

The UK will, of course, continue to interact with its neighbours and the rest of the world. Indeed, contrary to the views of certain over-enthusiastic Brexiteers, it is impossible in today’s globalised world for individual nation-states to go it alone.

The interconnectedness of the modern economy means that all nation-states are heavily interdependent. Furthermore, the major challenges of the day, international security, for example, are truly global in nature and require global solutions which can only be achieved through international cooperation.

However, Brexit threatens EU-UK cooperation in several key areas, which could have severe consequences going forward.


Trade tariffs

It is vital that the EU and the UK continue to have a strong trading relationship following the UK’s withdrawal. On the one hand, the UK currently represents the EU’s third largest national economy and in 2016, exports from other EU countries to the UK were worth around €365bn, about three per cent of the EU’s overall GDP.

On the other, 43 per cent of the UK’s exports went to other EU countries in 2016, representing 13 per cent of its national GDP. Needless to say, this trade will continue after Brexit.

Consequently, if trade tariffs were to be introduced in the wake of a hard Brexit, it would be an economic body-blow to both parties. This is especially true for Ireland, which trades more with the UK than any other country within the EU. Therefore, both the EU and the UK have strong incentives to make sure trade can continue unhindered post-Brexit. This is to be the main focus of the second phase of Brexit negotiations. However, if the UK leaves the EU Single Market and Customs Union, as Prime Minister May has promised it will, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved.

Another area in which EU-UK cooperation will be hugely important after Brexit is Northern Ireland. The contentious issue of the Northern Irish border has proven to be a sticking point in the first phase of Brexit talks, which deals with issues specific to the UK’s withdrawal.


Both the EU and the UK have strong incentives to make sure trade can continue unhindered post-Brexit


This is because Brexit could have profound implications for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement , much of which is predicated on mutual EU membership of the Republic of Ireland and the UK. More specifically, if Northern Ireland were to leave the EU Customs Union, this would necessitate the reconstruction, in some form, of the political and physical barriers between the Republic and Northern Ireland which the Agreement was designed to reduce.


Structural funds

In addition, from 1995 to 2013, the EU provided €1.3 bn in structural funds through its PEACE programmes to aid the peace process in Northern Ireland. It is unclear whether Northern Ireland could continue to receive such funding after Brexit.

Whatever the outcomes of the talks, the Irish and British governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and their role in the maintenance of the Agreement will require close cooperation long after the end of the Brexit process.

EU-UK cooperation will also be of paramount importance to international security.  It is vital that the European nations continue to collaborate to counter the growing threats of international terrorism, cyberterrorism and an increasingly aggressive Russia.

The UK’s strong military force and intelligence expertise has made it a key player in this area. It has facilitated cooperation between the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and it has been instrumental in shaping EU security and defence policy.

In her Article 50 letter, which triggered the UK’s withdrawal, Prime Minister May wrote that:

“Failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”

This prompted a backlash from EU officials who accused May of using security as a “bargaining chip”.

Currently, the UK and other EU countries cooperate on international security through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and the European Defence Agency (EDA), which the UK played a leading political role in setting up. They also cooperate on cross-border policing and intelligence through Europol, the European policing agency. The UK will certainly leave the CSDP and the EDA after Brexit but it remains to be seen whether it could remain in Europol.


Science and research

A perhaps less obvious area in which the EU and the UK will undoubtedly continue to collaborate is science and research. The UK is a world leader in this area, boasting four of the world’s top ten universities. The EU provides considerable funding for research projects through programmes such as Horizon 2020; to date it has awarded more research grants to UK universities than any other EU country. Naturally, Irish universities maintain close relationships with UK universities; they collaborate on numerous research projects and exchange thousands of students. In particular, the Northern Irish universities are dependent on the Republic for collaborative research projects.

This cooperation has contributed to a vibrant Higher Education sector in Northern Ireland which has underpinned its recent economic prosperity. The majority of these research projects receive EU funding of some kind, whether through Horizon 2020 or other programmes such as Erasmus+ or PEACE/INTERREG.

In addition, the Higher Education sector has benefited from the free movement of students and academics. It is unclear both whether such projects will still be eligible for EU funding post-Brexit and whether students and academics will still benefit from free mobility.

Brexit poses complicated challenges and has certainly strained EU-UK relations. However, it is clear from the above examples alone that after Brexit, it will be necessary not just to repair this relationship, but to develop it and enhance it. This is in the interest of all Europeans.