The UK has declined an EU offer for formal collaboration on global issues despite warming relations between the two sides since February’s diplomatic breakthrough on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
The idea for regular formal meetings — possibly including a bilateral summit with the 27 member states — was floated last month by European Council president Charles Michel, but was rejected by the UK side, according to two people with knowledge of the talks.
A senior EU official said the British side had “given the EU the brush-off” when the idea was raised. One UK official confirmed the proposal had been made but swiftly turned down.
“We haven’t proposed a dialogue and we won’t be proposing one,” they added, citing domestic political concerns in the ruling Conservative party about being seen to move too close to Brussels.
However, a second EU official said the idea remained up for discussion. “It is time to turn the page and look ahead,” they said, saying that there were regular dialogues with other big non-EU countries, including China, Japan and Turkey. “We are doing this with China, why not do it with the UK?”
They admitted that the issue was “sensitive” and the 27 member states would have to consent.
Since leaving the EU, the UK no longer attends quarterly European Council summit meetings, leaving no regular ministerial EU-UK forum to discuss broader strategic matters, such as defence, international trade and the regulation of emerging technologies.
The relationship between both sides is managed via the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which focuses on trade.
The idea for a deeper EU-UK strategic partnership, which had originally been conceived under former prime minister Theresa May, was dropped by her successor Boris Johnson when he came to power in 2019.
Relations between London and Brussels have warmed since UK prime minister Rishi Sunak brokered his Windsor framework deal to smooth post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland in February.
But the European Commission, which polices the TCA, is more sceptical than Michel. It has been clear the deal will not necessarily translate into concessions in other areas of the relationship with London, and has decided that creating a separate UK-EU dialogue is “not in its interest”, according to a senior EU official.
The remaining areas of contention between London and Brussels include the terms of the UK’s association to the €95.5bn Horizon science programme, a UK request to delay the imposition of tariffs on some electric vehicles moving between the UK and EU, and more favourable value added tax terms for UK exporters.
Sunak has also asked Brussels to team up on the creation of new rules to govern artificial intelligence ahead of an AI summit in London in the autumn. However, commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič this month said the EU believed the G7 was the best forum for such discussions.
A commission official confirmed that the idea of a strategic dialogue had been raised, but underlined that the TCA had a comprehensive governance structure that allowed all policy areas to be discussed bilaterally, including AI.
“Discussing issues related to our economic partnership is always welcome. That is why we have a comprehensive governance structure in the TCA,” the commission said. “The EU has committed to using this structure to its full potential.”
The UK government said: “We have no plans for a new dialogue outside of the TCA to discuss UK-EU bilateral trade issues.”
It added: “As you’d expect we continue to work with our EU partners on wider global issues and solutions for common global challenges.”
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank, said it was unrealistic to expect the two sides to agree a new strategic forum so soon after the UK left the bloc but added that it was a worthy long-term goal.
“It is only a few months since the Windsor deal was signed and it has not yet been fully implemented. So while trust levels are rising, it is from an extremely low level,” he said.