What do we talk about when we talk about negotiating a UK-EU relationship?

As you might have noticed, I have recently become a Senior Fellow of the ESRC-fundedĀ UK in a Changing Europe initiative, working on UK-EU relations. For present purposes, it mainly means I carry on doing this work, but now with more access to resources, and with a plan.

That plan is basically to try and make sense of relations, which feels like a bit more of a challenge now I’m actually getting into it. As such, it’s forced me to think more systematically about how to tackle this.

A key part of that is trying to unpack the various things we talk about when looking at this subject. So consider this a first stab.


Long-time readers of this (and other) blogs will know that I have always placed a lot of attention on the question of objectives in the relationship.

In the simplest terms, what are we trying to do here?

Simple and obvious as that might sound, it’s very rare to hear this voiced by participants in the debate, beyond some boilerplate stuff about wanting ‘good’ or ‘constructive’ relations. Those things are nice, but hardly a well-developed conceptualisation of anything.

What do you need those good and constructive relations for? How do they fit into your wider foreign relations? How do they fit with your idea of what you want to achieve domestically?

These are the big questions that need to asked to get towards a better sense of any of the rest of what follows.


More common is discussion of how we build and run a relationship.

This starts by focusing on the types of instruments being used – UK-EU treaties; UK bilateral treaties with member states; MOUs; informal venues, etc. – each of which has its own range of options and flexibilities.

There’s also a process issue relating to who decides about the relationship. How much do you involve different political and social actors in this? Are you consulting widely, or trying to keep things tight?

These things all matter, both because of the future implications they carry (on flexibility, on the extent and nature of obligations) and because of the contemporary political values they contain (on legitimacy, on the seriousness of intent).


This is the one we almost always discuss: what’s in the deal?

As I’ve already suggested, this kind of thing should really be driven by higher-order considerations about objectives, but in practice a lot comes down to specifics. Especially if you have a thing you think is important.

Scope clearly is consequential, also because a wider scope also tends to mean more people are affected/involved, which also has process implications.

Principles and Norms

This last category is slightly different in that it captures a number of ideas that inform the rest of the elements discussed here. Three examples might make this a bit clearer.

First up is the notion of good faith. Yes, it’s a principle of international treaty law, but it’s also good politics to be seen as (and actually to be) straight up, doing what you say you will. This speaks to trust, albeit in a more focused and applied manner.

Second we have the value placed on resilience and durability of agreements. As much as we have seen plenty of expediency in post-referendum British policy, there has also been an underlying effort to build some that will last. If nothing else, it hopefully means not having to spend so much time on things down the line.

And thirdly there is a notion that precedent-setting is important. This is more on the EU side, who don’t want to open the door to other third states popping up to demand the same treatment as the UK, but you also find in London, where particularities in dealings with the EU aren’t simple either (part of why CJEU powers are contentious).

Each of these suffuse the rest, even as they matter in their own right and deserve our attention.

Putting that together again

As I say, this is a first effort to systematise my thinking on this, but the main takeaway for now is that if we want to reach any equilibrium – high or low – in UK-EU relations, then we are going to have to make sure that we take proper account of all four parts of this, or risk falling another cycle making-it-up-as-we-go.

Which would be nice.

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