The European Parliament and the UK; an Entente Cordiale or a Brexit hangover?

by Amelie Bamford, Junior Consultant

In the first European Union (EU) Parliamentary election since the United Kingdom (UK) left the EU in January 2020, the divergence in political ideology has become apparent amongst voters in the EU’s Member States. With the far-right leaning parties scoring a monumental victory during this weekend’s election, demonstrating how right-wing ideology was disseminating its grips across the bloc.

It would be mistaken to assume that, in a post-Brexit world, the impact of these election results on the EU-UK relationship is immaterial. In reality, geopolitical shifts and immense, interconnected global challenges will inevitably call for a closer collaboration between the UK and the EU. With the UK barrelling towards its own General Election expected to deliver a landslide Labour victory, what impact will this stark ideological divergence have on our ability to work together on challenges such as defence, climate change, and economic growth?

Defence and security

Maintaining a unified response to the ongoing war in Ukraine will be one of the most pressing issues, and questions have been raised whether the EU and the UK will remain closely aligned in their approach to security and defence.

According to a survey released by Focaldata, international conflict and war was the second most important concern amongst the EU’s five most populated countries – Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland. As foreign and defence policies have primarily been the domain of the individual EU’s Member States, the rightward shift may allow for differing national priorities and enable emerging sceptics to endanger the relatively uniform support for Ukraine seen from both the EU and the UK thus far. 

Ukraine is receiving considerable support from the Law and Justice party in Poland, Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d’Italia, and other European Conservatives and Reformists. However, the Identity and Democracy group, which includes Le Pen's French National Rally, the Alternative für Deutschland and the Freedom Party of Austria, are seen as far more pro-Russian than the current political establishment and are expected to use their newly increased power to question the ongoing financial and military support to Ukraine - contradictory to the UK’s unwavering commitment from both sides of the political aisle.

This clear dividing line between the UK and a growing faction within the EU will create friction should these new right-wing arrivals begin to exert greater influence over European foreign policy. With the US also expected to become more isolationist under a potential re-arrival of Donald Trump to the White House in November, this could force the UK to step up as the leading voice for diplomatic, military, and humanitarian aid to the Eastern European nation.

Climate change

In the current economic climate, we can also expect shifts in commonalities regarding environmental policies following the election – with parts of the EU electorate becoming increasingly preoccupied over the cost of climate measures to taxpayers. Prior to the election, farmers across the EU have staged mass protests, arguing that the environmental regulations outlined by the EU were “unfair” and “ruinous”.

Feeling the pressure of the upcoming Parliamentary vote, a number of EU environmental regulations were rescinded to appease the farmers and the EU’s rural citizens. Nonetheless, the far-right’s commitment to “stand up to the remote elites” in Brussels and respective national governments of the EU Member States has allowed for the new make-up of the EU to challenge the current Net Zero agenda and emission reduction targets.

In many ways, this approach would be closely aligned with the current UK Conservative Government, which has made a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to climate policy a central element of its campaign.  This however has been broadly rebuked by the Labour ‘Government-in-waiting’, who are expected to protect and promote the collective Net Zero targets agreed to in the Paris Agreement.

Economic growth and trade

A new age of post-Brexit business and trade has emerged between the UK and the EU – particularly with the Border Target Operating Model (BTOM), introducing simplified customs measures on security controls, sanitary and phytosanitary rules, having recently been agreed. Despite the far-right factions of the EU sharing common views internally on issues such as immigration and climate change, they differ on the economy, trade and on free markets; something the United Kingdom might be able to take advantage of should the EU become hesitant in its trade policy.

A reinvigorated London financial sector will fuel further competition for capital and a battle between UK and the EU cities for foreign investment. While London has just edged ahead as the foreign investment capital of Europe, future incentives in European cities have the potential to cause some strain between the two as they fight for further investment to alleviate their domestic issues.  

The European Commission’s desire for more trade agreements with reliable partners, making up for lost business with Russia and to reduce dependence on China, could provide further leg room for the UK in terms of trade agreements, particularly if EU friendly Keir Starmer wins the election. The European Commission continues to argue that the EU needs to present a united stance towards major rivals such as China – a policy that will likely ring popular with the newly elected populist political parties, who will be expected to consider hawkish policies towards the Far Eastern nation.

It is yet unclear what position the UK will take. Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, has recently said a Labour Government would recognise that the Chinese Communist Party poses “real security threats” due to its expanding military and support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; however, Labour has failed to disclose their overall policy commitment on trade with China – leaving many on both sides of the Channel sceptical about how seriously the UK will view this threat.

It cannot be denied that there are many variables that could change the outlook of EU and UK relations in the near future. A snap Parliamentary election in France now approaches, the make-up of Ursula Von der Leyen’s administration is yet to take shape, if at all, and the UK looks set to elect a landslide Labour government. The divergence in ideologies may be stark but the truth is the UK and the EU need each other like never before.  

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