Building a new relationship: the United Kingdom and Europe in a changing world


Brexit has happened. In three days’ time a year will have elapsed since the United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union and a month since transitional arrangements ended. 


For all of us who supported our country’s membership of the EU and who campaigned and voted to remain in the 2016 referendum this is a sad moment and I doubt that any of us has seen evidence, least of all in the past few weeks, to persuade us that the stance that we took five years ago was wrong.


But we have to face facts. However many times you press the replay button for the 2016 campaign, our side still lost, and one of the things I’ve learned in 46 years as an active member of the Conservative Party, nearly 28 of them in the House of Commons, is that there are no prizes in politics for people or parties who go around trying to tell the electorate that they, the voters,  made a dreadful mistake last time.


Those who urge a campaign to rejoin the European Union are, I believe, misreading the mood both in the United Kingdom and among the 27 members of the EU.


Here in the UK, the issue of Brexit has divided families and broken lifelong friendships. I see no public appetite, least of all amid the agony and the grievous economic damage of the Covid pandemic, to spend the next five years going through all that pain and bitterness again to reverse the 2016 decision in order to re-enter the European Union on what would be significantly worse terms than before, without any of the opt-outs or rebates that we enjoyed until our departure.


Nor should we kid ourselves about the mood among the 27. The day after the referendum, as David Cameron announced his resignation, I had to fly to Luxembourg to talk to the Foreign Ministers of the other member states about what had happened. Their mood at that meeting - shock, great sadness but acceptance of the result and respectful of the legitimacy of the vote - has characterised the EU response ever since.


It is a mistake to think that the first thought of Ursula von der Leyen, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel or any of the other leaders when they wake up in the morning is about Brexit or indeed about the UK at all. With each month and year that has passed since the referendum, the 27 have focussed more of their time and energy on their own economic and political future.


Look at the published programme for the German Presidency of the EU, which set the priorities for the second half of 2020. There was one solitary mention of the United Kingdom and exit negotiations, on page 21, sandwiched between a paragraph on the United States and one on China. The current, Portuguese Presidency document, 37 pages in length, has three mentions of the UK, each limited to a brief, bland statement that the Presidency will work for a “comprehensive, fair and balanced partnership that respects the interests of the Union and its Member States”.


The 27, like the United Kingdom, have enough problems of their own on their plate. They are grappling with the traumatic impact of Covid while still facing the existential economic challenge posed by the digital revolution and global competition. They know that there is nothing remotely resembling a settled political consensus in the UK that we should rejoin. Worse, they ask themselves, seriously and with sorrow not glee, whether the United Kingdom will still exist in ten years’ time. It is fanciful to think that they would be eager for an accession application.


The question facing both the British government and its counterparts in the other European democracies is what kind of relationship we want to build over the next five to ten years, and the challenge for us in the Conservative European Forum, which, as the Conservative Group for Europe, has for more than 50 years championed UK membership of the EU,  is to define a mission for this new situation, in which our country will be outside the European Union but joined to it by geography; history; a shared political, artistic and scientific culture; strategic interest; investment and trade.


Our starting point has to be that, however much we may regret the outcome of the referendum, we want our country to succeed. Far too often, even now and especially on platforms like Twitter, you find trench warfare going on. On the one hand, we see hard line Leavers spying a plot behind any difficulty created by Brexit, who refuse to be satisfied by the UK leaving and want every other state to do so too. On the other, there are ultra-Remainers who respond not with sympathy but gleeful vindication to the struggles of small businesses or the strains on the Union in Scotland and Northern Ireland.


Those voices are not representative of the electorate as a whole and we should have no truck with them. We supported British membership of the European Union because we believed that that was the best way to protect and maintain the security and prosperity of our country. Now, in our debates and our judgments about the new partnership that we want to help shape between the United Kingdom and its neighbours, it is the national interest of the people of the United Kingdom that we again have to keep at the front of our minds.


In thinking about how this country’s relationship with Europe should now evolve, my starting point is the reality that the United Kingdom is a European power, but one which also has a global outlook and global interests.  I see no conflict between us, on the one hand, strengthening our ties with Japan, Australia and South Korea and, on the other, building a new kind of partnership with our European allies, with whom the UK will continue to share interests in common and who as a region will for the foreseeable future remain our most important partner in investment and trade. A United Kingdom engaged in Europe, enjoying strong, strategic relationships with its neighbours and allies is an integral and essential element of “Global Britain” not an alternative to it.


There are fewer than 20 villages in the United Kingdom that lost no one in the savage European wars of the twentieth century. It is profoundly in the national interest of the United Kingdom that there should be some kind of institutionalised cooperation between European nations, founded on the rule of law, democratic government and respect for human rights. Moreover, we and our neighbours face challenges - climate, pollution of the oceans, organised crime - that no single country, not the UK, nor France, nor Germany can tackle on its own.


So I welcomed the Prime Minister’s words on Christmas Eve, in his speech announcing the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement (the TCA) with the European Union. In those remarks he described how he was, after what he termed a “fractious and difficult period”, now looking forward to a better relationship in the future. He spoke of the United Kingdom as the EU’s “friend, ally [and] supporter” and said that this country would stay “strategically” attached to Europe. Welcome too was Michael Gove’s description of the TCA as the first step towards a “special relationship” (a phrase no British politician uses lightly) between the UK and EU.


It’s also worth recalling that even amid the sometimes harsh rhetoric of the divorce negotiations, on key international issues like climate, Iran and Israel/Palestine, the Prime Minister chose to stay closely aligned with the European position despite pressure from the White House, and he beefed up further the UK’s military commitment to the French-led counter terrorist effort in the Sahel.


Even so, after the history of the last few years we are not going to see everything settling down quickly into some new equilibrium. The last five years have been scarring on all sides and there will be more aftershocks like the frankly shameful explosions of vaccine protectionism that we’ve seen this week. But the strategic challenge for the government and the Conservative Party is to set about shaping a new relationship between the United Kingdom and the other democracies of Europe, different from the relationship that we had as an EU member but grounded in our common values and shared interests.


This group, too, needs to reset its priorities.


I believe that there are three key objectives on which we should focus.


First, the Conservative European Forum should be an advocate within the Conservative Party and among Conservative voters for a close strategic partnership between this country and our fellow democracies in Europe, a partnership that includes both national governments and the institutions of the European Union.


Second, we should establish the Forum as a thought leader in the debate that will develop over the months and years ahead about the best form of cooperation between the UK and the rest of Europe on different issues, from carbon reduction to financial services, data, economic competitiveness or disrupting organised crime.


Third, we should work to repair and strengthen the relationships between our own party and the mainstream parties of the Conservative and Christian Democratic centre-right in other European countries. For reasons that are obvious, those relationships are pretty bruised at present. If we value our own national interest, that situation has to change. Parties like the CDU and CSU in Germany, the Moderates in Sweden and Partido Popular in Spain are either in government now or likely to be again in the foreseeable future. These parties share our own belief in individual freedom, personal responsibility, free enterprise and limited government. We can learn from each other’s experience how best to embody those principles in effective policies that change people’s lives for the better.


This is work for the next five to ten years. And it will require us in the CEF to do more than just talk to ourselves. We should be confident in reaching out to engage both with those who wanted the UK to remain a member of the EU, a fifth of Conservative voters at the last General Election, and to pragmatic Leavers, those who want a constructive, friendly relationship with the rest of Europe but felt that the EU had moved too far towards political integration.


So far, the indications from the government are that they envisage the UK’s new relationship with the rest of Europe as being largely intergovernmental in character, using formats like the E3 in which Britain, France and Germany coordinate key diplomatic and security policy actions and which has continued to operate during even the most acrimonious phases of the divorce negotiations.


Government to government relations will indeed be important and outside the EU we shall have to work harder to keep these intergovernmental relationships in good repair. Week after week, for almost 50 years UK Ministers and officials have been meeting their counterparts from other European countries in Council meetings. And as with any such gathering, the informal chat over coffee or in the margins of a plenary session are at least as valuable as the Council itself. As Europe Minister and later Justice Secretary, I would go to each Council armed with a list of colleagues to talk to, often about EU business but also perhaps a NATO or UN matter or a bilateral problem that the two of us needed to try and resolve.


Those meetings are still taking place. The difference is that we, the UK, are no longer there. We shall need to invent new arrangements to sustain understanding of each other’s interests and re-establish mutual trust. While I have huge admiration and respect for our diplomatic service, contacts through embassies will not be enough. Political leaders and senior officials from domestic Departments will also need to be involved.  Every year the UK and France hold a joint summit, bringing together the President, Prime Minister and key members of their respective Cabinets. That model, or something like it is what we shall need to maintain and develop relationships with Germany, Ireland and others.


A good working partnership with the rest of Europe will also need to involve the institutions of the European Union. As I say that I can sense the shudder among some of our fellow Conservatives at the very thought. My argument to them is that we have nothing to fear, after all we are no longer part of the EU, and on the contrary have much to gain from a strategic relationship with our neighbours which reflects the reality that Europe conducts its business and takes decisions at both intergovernmental and EU level.


I’m not under any illusion about the EU institutions. Having spent more than six years of my life attending Council meetings and paying frequent visits to both the Commission and the European Parliament, I know full well that they have flaws and they make mistakes, just like every other institution yet created by human beings.


To those who still fear to have any dealings with the Commission or European Parliament except at the tip of the very longest of barge poles, I would put three arguments.


First, to make the Trade and Cooperation Agreement work smoothly we shall need a relationship of mutual trust with the Commission. The TCA establishes an EU/UK Partnership Council, together with 16 committees and four working groups to cover issues from customs rules to food safety, trade in motor vehicles, energy, fisheries, aviation, VAT and road transport. To them will fall the tasks of seeing the TCA implemented fairly and working out how a host of technical challenges should be resolved.  We already know that on the EU side the Partnership Council will be chaired by Maros Sefkovic, one of the most experienced Commissioners in Ursula von der Leyen’s team and the Commission is likely to staff the EU teams on the committees and working groups. Of course, there will be time when interests clash and disagreements arise, but those will be a lot easier to manage if they take place in a context where the two sides feel able to speak to each other in a spirit of both candour and mutual trust, and understand each other’s perspectives and interests. That is true as regards the implementation of both the TCA and the Northern Ireland Protocol.


Second, while a lot can be done working state to state with national governments, the EU treaties give the Union collectively the legal authority to act on behalf of all members on a number of important issues. For the UK, winning international support for our ambitions to liberalise international trade, cut carbon emissions and end the trade in endangered species will require us to deal with the EU at institutional level.


Third, like them or not, the institutions are part of the political world in which the member states think and work. The smaller countries see the Commission as both a means to amplify their power and a counterweight to France and Germany. They are suspicious of anything, such as the E3, that looks like the big boys trying to decide things over their heads. Even for the large member states, working through the EU system is an integral part of how they do business.


On so many of today’s policy challenges, from the climate emergency, to organised crime, terrorist threats or the challenges which in their different ways both Russia and China pose to the world’s liberal democracies, Britain will achieve more for our own people if we work in alliance with others. As far as Europe is concerned, if we in the UK are serious about trying to influence and persuade the EU from the outside, that involves developing deep, strategic relationships at both nation state and EU level.


We don’t have time to waste. The COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year will be a major opportunity for the United Kingdom to show that outside the EU it is still a power able to broker deals and shape global decisions. Ahead of the Glasgow meeting, the 27 EU members will negotiate among themselves an agreed collective position, almost certainly on the basis of a draft prepared by the Commission. Experience of previous international summits shows that once that collective EU position has been agreed, it is hard to shift, in large part because to make a change requires a further time-consuming internal debate. So, we need to be working now to understand the interests and opinions of the 27 member states and the institutions and to influence their collective decision in ways that will help the summit to reach a successful outcome.


The UK and the rest of Europe share a common interest in effective action on climate but only by working together will be able to ensure that such action does not end up creating new barriers to trade and investment. Will the European and UK emissions trading schemes be compatible or will there be a temptation on one side or the other to go soft on particular high energy users in order to hang onto important business investments? What would a Carbon Border Adjustment mean in practice for businesses trading between the UK and the European Single Market?


To deal effectively with serious and organised crime, whether online fraud or trafficking in drugs, counterfeit goods and people we shall also need to work with the rest of Europe. Ask any Chief Constable and they will say that nowadays every kind of organised crime has an international dimension. Worse still, the smugglers and fraudsters are as professional in their operations and organisation as any legitimate multinational business.


The TCA has preserved some but not all of the benefits of police and judicial cooperation that we had as a member of the EU and which enabled us to identify suspects, disrupt criminal activity and see gangsters brought to justice. We shall need to work with national governments and the Commission to secure new arrangements that allow all of us in democratic Europe to protect our citizens’ property and personal security.


Crime is international, which in turn means that it isn’t possible to make a neat separation between cooperation on policing and cooperation on foreign policy. Traffickers send drugs from Latin America and the Caribbean to West Africa, from where the gangs transport them into Europe. To stop this pernicious trade requires not only that police forces work more closely together but also the use of development aid, diplomatic leverage and action to embolden and equip African leaders to act against the corruption and lawlessness that provide the environment in which the criminals thrive.


I regret very much the government’s decision to exclude from its Brexit negotiating objectives any kind of structured security and foreign policy cooperation with the EU and I hope that now we are fully out and no-one can credibly fret about Brexit being “blocked” or “betrayed” the government will think again about their position.


Around the world our values and our model of politics - open, liberal, pluralist rooted in respect for the rule of law and human rights and buttressed by democratic institutions - is being challenged more aggressively than at any time in the last 30 years.


The Russian chemical weapons attack in Salisbury in 2018 was part of a pattern: military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine; interference in elections in Moldova, North Macedonia and Montenegro; the kidnapping of an Estonian official from inside his own country; probes into territorial waters in Sweden; cyber attacks; economic pressure; relentless information warfare.


China has become ever more self-confident and assertive in promoting its own model of authoritarian government and, as we have seen with both Canada and Australia, willing to use economic power and a legal system ultimately directed by the Communist Party to try to bully other countries to comply with Beijing’s demands.


The “China 2025” project openly proclaims Beijing’s ambition to secure dominance in the global market for the key technologies of the 21st century: quantum engineering, synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, while President Xi and his colleagues make no secret of their ambition to see the rule-based international order changed to conform more to Chinese norms.


In Africa and in the Western Balkans, corruption, weak governance and civil conflict leave a space within which criminal and terrorist networks are able to find a relatively safe place from which to plan and prepare.


The United Kingdom is capable of making an enormous contribution to the capacity of the democratic world to counter these threats. We have significant military power and the political will to use it, outstanding intelligence services, one of the biggest and best diplomatic capabilities in the world and an international aid programme which, even after the planned cuts, will still be one of the world’s largest. The UK has lost the additional influence that came from being a leading member of the European Union, but is still a permanent member of the Security Council, active in NATO, Five-Eyes, the G7, G20, OSCE, Commonwealth, WTO, IMF, OECD and other international networks. And our soft-power - the English language, the BBC, creative arts, universities and the global reputation for fierce independence and impartiality of our judges and courts - boosts our influence further.


A United Kingdom willing and able to act globally with allies and often through international institutions brings strength to the democratic alliance. We should welcome the government’s ambition to work more closely with Japan, Australia, India and South Korea and the idea of a D10 grouping of the leading democratic powers. But we also need to work strategically with democratic partners in our own region. Our interests will not be served by leaving a Europe-shaped hole in our global strategy.


It is true that NATO will remain the cornerstone of our own and Europe’s defence. But it can’t do everything. Some of our close partners - Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland - are not members of NATO but are willing to participate in EU or UN initiatives. It is doubtful that NATO on its own can respond adequately to the kind of hybrid conflict rehearsed by Russia in Ukraine, with information, cultural organisations and economic pressure used as well as or instead of military intervention, or intervene to counter organised crime and build state capacity in Africa.


It is hugely welcome that we now have an administration in the United States, our indispensable ally, which believes in the value of alliances and which wants to see international institutions work more effectively rather than to tear them down.


President Biden will expect his European allies to do more: to spend more on their own security, to show greater political leadership to address challenges in the Balkans and Africa, and to help the United States in the region of the world that matters most to Washington, the Indo-Pacific.


The early signals from the Biden administration are that America sees both the UK and the European Union as important allies. Some of the incoming team are reported to talk about a “three-legged stool” approach to policy, with the US, UK and EU working together to a shared strategic plan. We should welcome that way of working. After all, no plan for a more effective European pillar of the Atlantic alliance makes any sense unless it has both the United Kingdom and France at its core, and active involvement and support from other EU powers.


In addition, the tripartite approach which the Biden White House may have in mind should, besides helping to shape a coherent response to Russia and China, ensure that the UK was in the room when the United States and the European Union discussed global regulatory standards or the rules governing world trade and diminish the risk of the two biggest free market areas in the world stitching up a deal and presenting the UK with a “fait accompli”.


I want to finish on a political point. There will be some, certainly among those who sadly left the Conservative Party over Brexit and perhaps some this evening, who will question whether there is any point to us pushing these arguments, whether the government, the party leadership will listen.


I am more hopeful. In part because of what the Prime Minister and others have said since the TCA was agreed. Partly too because of electoral dynamics. Without that fifth of the Conservative vote that came from people who had voted to remain, we would not have a Conservative government in office. By the time of the next election, in 2023 or 2024, the party will have been in office for 13 or 14 years. Our opponent will not be Jeremy Corbyn. The danger will be greater that voters will think “it’s time for a change”. There will be more new voters on the register and they will, on average, be more internationalist and more pro-European than those that they replace. If the Conservative Party can show that outside the EU it can still work effectively and successfully with its neighbours, it will have a better chance of winning those people’s votes and, let’s not forget, of reassuring people in Scotland and Northern Ireland that while we may have left the EU the United Kingdom is still strategically and culturally part of Europe.


Above all though, I believe we should adopt the approach that I have set out in these remarks because it is in the national interest to establish a new “special relationship” with our European neighbours. And for every Conservative it is the national interest that should come first.


After the passions and divisions within the country and the Conservative Party over our membership of the European Union, it is understandable if some in the CEF feel a bit daunted by the scale of the task that we are setting for ourselves. But we should take heart from the fact that amongst our existing members and supporters we have a wealth of knowledge and experience of UK politics and working with other European countries, and we know that a close friendship, a “special relationship” with our friends and allies next door is what young voters, whose support the Conservatives will need, want to see. So today let us start on this new mission with determination and confidence.


David Lidington


The Rt Hon Sir David Lidington KCB CBE was the Member of Parliament for Aylesbury from 1992 until 2019. Sir David served in a number of front bench roles, including as the UK’s longest serving Minister for European Affairs, Leader of the House of Commons,