Rishi Sunak is privately drafting plans to rebuild Britain’s ties with the EU

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has privately asked senior ministers and officials to draw up plans for rebuilding the UK’s relations with the European Union after years of acrimony since Brexit.

Driven in part by the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, senior civil servants have been drafting proposals for how Britain can work more closely with EU nations across a range of policy areas. The work focuses on defense, migration, and so-called economic statecraft which includes issues such as trade, energy and international standards.

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Sunak’s pivot toward the EU was described by ministers, diplomats and officials who asked not to be named discussing unpublished plans.

UK officials are hoping that in the coming days they will be able to announce a solution to the years-long dispute with the EU over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. And Sunak’s team are looking to use that breakthrough as the foundation for a more comprehensive improvement in ties with the bloc.

To pull that off, however, the 42-year-old prime minister faces a delicate balancing to keep the ardent Brexiteers in his party in check and to coax their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party into lifting their veto on devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Even if he can do that, he’ll face the skepticism of European leaders who’ve been trying to do business with the UK for the past seven years as the country bounced through five different prime ministers who often treated the EU as a punch bag for their domestic audience. The UK is also soon to unveil legislation on migration that could bring it into conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The change in the UK’s strategy toward Europe was not an admission that Brexit had been a failure, a government official insisted, arguing it was a reflection of a changing reality.

Sunak has made clear to European leaders that he is determined to resolve the issue of trade with Northern Ireland, which has blighted relations since Britain left the bloc. A deal at a technical level is all but agreed, though the prime minister still has to convince the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers not to derail it.

If the impasse can be broken, Sunak’s administration aims to deliver more tangible policy successes this year. Sunak’s team see his relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron as promising, and cooperation with France will be essential if the UK is to stop undocumented migrants crossing the Channel in small boats.

That’s one of Sunak’s five pledges to voters ahead of an election expected next year.

Sunak and Macron presented a united front this month as they both hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who traveled from Britain to France on a UK government plane. An early test of the outreach will be Sunak’s meeting with Macron in Paris in March, where he hopes to secure further progress on migrant crossings.

Britain is also working on detailed plans to bolster defense ties with Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This will be centered around the NATO summit in Lithuania in July, where some senior members of Sunak’s government want to see a new investment pledge going beyond the group’s existing commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has called for greater investment in Britain’s Armed Forces, and a post-Ukraine update to the Integrated Review of British defense, security and foreign policy is due in the coming weeks.

Among the proposals under consideration are a formal defense and security relationship and dialogue between the UK and EU, as well as a legal agreement to more easily allow the British military to join EU operations. The UK’s response to the Ukraine war provided a big opportunity to take more of a leadership role in NATO’s command and control structures, one senior UK official said.

The EU is likely to welcome closer cooperation on security, since the UK and France have the most powerful militaries in Europe. Indeed, when Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson was negotiating the terms of Brexit, the EU pushed for more cooperation on defense but Johnson refused.

The government also wants to work more closely with the EU on joint defense exports, to deter non-European countries from agreeing contracts with Russia and China. That could prove trickier to negotiate.

British officials are concerned that UK defense companies could be squeezed out from an EU-only policy on defense exports and see a joint initiative as a way to hedge that risk. France and Germany have traditionally tried to steer big defense contracts toward European companies, but the recent agreement to develop a fighter jet with Italy and Japan shows what it possible.

While there have been heated behind-the-scenes disagreements with Germany in particular on issues such as tanks, the Ukraine war has left European nations and the UK more aligned on foreign and defense policy than at any point in decades.

Britain’s economic fortunes since Brexit have so far been defined by meager growth and weaker trade with the EU. On Friday, official data showed the UK’s trade deficit with the bloc had widened to a record in the final quarter of 2022.

One UK official said they have told Sunak that strong trading relations with Europe will be essential for the economic challenges of the future in areas such as emerging technologies, and to deal with threats like global supply shocks and China.

The reality is that a more dangerous world, rising authoritarianism and protectionism means there is no choice but to work closely with allies, the official said. This means moving away from what the “madman strategy of recent collisions with Brussels, toward a more stable relationship as critical friends,” they added.

Civil servants are drawing up a Supply Chains and Imports Strategy that will propose securing supplies of critical goods like minerals from safe countries, in the event of future shocks comparable to the Covid pandemic. A Semiconductor Strategy will outline a similar approach for the supply of chips.

US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has focused minds in London about the risks of Britain being caught in the middle of two large trading powers pursuing protectionist policies. UK ministers have engaged their EU counterparts urging them not to harm British firms as the bloc considers its own massive green subsidies in response to the US.

There is no way the UK would be able to compete with the size of US and EU subsidies, so it has to instead use diplomacy to negotiate protections for British companies from both sides, a person familiar said. Those talks are being led by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Sunak himself.

Badenoch has also pivoted away from her predecessor Liz Truss’s focus on securing free trade agreements with non-EU countries that have been of debatable economic benefit, toward boosting exports and investment.

Soft power is also key in another area Sunak wants to boost Britain’s relevance: what officials call regulatory diplomacy. The government wants to be able to influence international standards on essential goods of the future and that means engaging with the EU.

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