David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).
Six years after the referendum, it’s high time for the Conservative Party to move on from its bitter divisions over Europe and set about building a different but close strategic partnership between the United Kingdom and our next door neighbours.
It’s three years since the Union Flag was lowered for the last time from its flagpole outside the Berlaymont and folded neatly away; since a British commissioner sat in the College or a UK Minister attended Council, and British MEPs, some tearfully, others gleefully, left the parliamentary chamber for good.
It’s two years since transitional arrangements ended and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) and Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson came into effect.
In that time, public opinion has changed.
Those anniversaries went almost completely unmarked: no crowds on the streets, no beacons, no demands for Big Ben to “bong” – whether in celebration or mourning.
Recent polls show up to 60 per cent of voters now think Brexit was a mistake, but there’s no widespread clamour to rejoin. Polling for UK in a Changing Europe found that at the end of 2022 Brexit was not even in the top ten of issues that mattered to the British public. The nation, worried about food and energy prices and the condition of the NHS, is weary of the whole Brexit saga and thinks that constructive, friendly relations with the rest of democratic Europe is rather a good idea.
Across the Channel, the European Union moved on long ago. They think we were crazy to leave, believe that Brexit has weakened both us and them, but accept that that was the choice British voters made. There is no plot to get us back.
Our national interests are intimately bound up with those of our fellow European democracies. Our ambitions for the security and prosperity of families in this country depend in part on how successfully we work with our allies and partners in the continent we share. “Global Britain” will be an empty slogan if it has a Europe-shaped hole in the middle.
Our national interest requires not only good relationships with individual governments but with the European Union and its institutions.
Bilateral relationships are important. The improvement in relations between Number 10 and the Elysee since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister is good news. So is James Cleverly’s close working relationship with his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock.
But bilateral relations can only take you so far. Under its treaties the European Union has exclusive or partial competence to act in many areas of policy that affect our interests: rules on trade and investment; climate and energy; digital and data; finance. For most of our neighbours, work within and through the EU is integral to how they make policy and advance their national interests.
We don’t have time to waste. During 2025 and 2026 the TCA, the UK/EU fisheries agreement, the EU’s decision on UK data adequacy and its current policy on derivatives trading all come up for review.
If a deal can be done on the Northern Ireland Protocol, other steps become possible. The Memorandum of Understanding on Financial Services, agreed in principle two years ago, could be finalised. The UK’s associate membership of the Horizon programme on scientific cooperation, something of enormous value to British universities, could be confirmed.
Those would be incremental improvements, but still worth having. Each would help to strengthen trust, which would in turn make more strategic cooperation, for example on climate and energy security, easier. It would, for example, be mutually beneficial for the UK and EU to ensure that their respective measures on emissions trading and carbon border adjustments are aligned and avoid introducing additional friction to trade.
As the relationship develops, we should look for new ways to cooperate with the rest of Europe on security and strategic economic challenges.
Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and the barbarity of Russian attacks on civilians represent an existential challenge to the security of our entire continent and to the values that we fought to defend during the twentieth century. Last year’s events have also reminded EU leaders that effective European security and defence requires the active involvement of the UK.
When it comes to military cooperation and defence, NATO will remain at the heart of our work with European (and other) allies.
But there will also be security challenges that fall outside NATO’s mission, or where the Americans say that this isn’t a priority for them, that it’s up to the European powers to take the lead.
Corruption and political instability in the Western Balkans and Africa matter to our interests. Terrorists, people traffickers and other organised gangs find a safe space in which to organise and plan. Despair at the chance of ever getting a decent life at home drives ever more young people to grab any chance, however risky, to move to Europe.
Confronting those challenges needs an effective alliance between national governments and the EU which collectively holds responsibility for important elements of soft power: development aid, police cooperation, trade access and programmes to fight corruption and improve standards of governance.
It is in our national interest to develop practical security cooperation with the EU. Over time, this could (I hope will) grow into a formal partnership on security.
Economically, China offers huge opportunities for British business. It is an essential partner in the drive to net zero. But China also has open ambitions to dominate the production and supply of every key twenty-first century technology, from life sciences to quantum computing and zero carbon, making Britain and the whole of Europe dependent on Chinese know-how, suppliers and therefore goodwill.
No European country is powerful enough to strong-arm China or match Beijing’s campaign to get its allies elected to global standards bodies. European nations acting together can provide a more effective balance, better still a Europe allied to the United States. We should be involved in that work.
When Washington and Brussels meet in the Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, the UK should be in the room, not shut outside with our ear pressed against the door. We should be working with other Europeans to shape a common response to Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act which promises to divert investment to the United States at the expense of Britain and the rest of Europe. Our influence will be greater if we work with allies rather than go it alone.
None of this need stop us doing things differently from the EU if we want to – though British business will often say that they prefer to stick to familiar EU rules rather than incur the cost of complying with two separate sets of regulations.
Nor is it somehow an abdication of sovereignty to build a new partnership with our fellow democracies in Europe, including the institutions of the European Union. Rather, it is a way to defend more effectively the interests of the United Kingdom and our allies. It is an expression of sovereignty to create structures and relationships that enable us to safeguard the security and prosperity of the people of this nation, which the Conservative Party exists to serve.