Jon Bloomfield on building a progressive UK-EU relationship after Brexit: ‘It takes two to tango’

In his recent report for Compass, It takes two to tango: creating a new UK-EU relationship, Jon Bloomfield discusses alternatives to the current government’s approach. As UK-EU relations reach a nadir, he provides a much needed reminder that there are realistic alternatives available – and we don’t need to accept the status quo. Brexit Spotlight caught up with him, to discuss the outline for a progressive relationship with the EU.

Brexit Spotlight: Lets’ start with the global context. In the report, you talk about a shifting of global geopolitical realities that mean Europeans “have to adjust to the fact that we are no longer the centre of the economic and political universe”. Could you explain this for us? What kind of challenges does it pose? 

For 500 years, Europe was at the centre of the world: in economics, science, warfare. Its nations – Spain and Portugal, then Holland, UK and France followed later by Germany –colonised the globe. The two major wars of the 20th century were fought on European soil and until 1989 the Continent was the focus of the Cold War. This era, fraying since the end of World War II, has now decisively ended.

China’s phenomenal economic rise since Deng Xiaoping’s turn to reform in December 1978 is the core factor at play here. But alongside China’s unprecedented economic expansion, other Asian nations are growing fast, too. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement between 15 Asia-Pacific nations signed on 15 November 2020 brought together countries accounting for 30% of global GDP, making it the biggest trade bloc in history. It confirmed that the world is both increasingly multi-polar and that it is re-balancing ‘away from the West.’

Serious European politicians recognise this shift. They know that in terms of geo-politics acting on their own as individual nation states, they have no clout. As the United States – under Democrats as well as Republicans – shifts its strategic focus to Asia, to carry any weight in the world European countries simply have to act together. Hence, the increasing calls for ‘European sovereignty’ or ‘European autonomy.’ Translating these slogans into effective practice on industry, innovation, climate or security is the great challenge for the EU, its institutions and politicians.

Of course, Boris Johnson and the Brexiters believe they can defy these trends and establish a ‘global Britain.’ The early signs of whether this is a plausible political and economic trajectory could hardly be less promising.

Brexit Spotlight: In the report, you suggest the EU has relied excessively on its position as a regulatory actor. While it has significant influence in world trade talks, in other areas it has been weak. And you discuss how this weakness is particularly evident in relation to foreign and security policy – why is this such a difficult issue for the EU? 

Because of history and politics. The EU is a unique, relatively new, transnational organisation created out of the ruins of war. European federalists think it should follow the US constitutional model, but Europe is not a young settler country but rather a matrix of individual nations, each with their own distinct cultures, traditions and history. It was created initially as a coal and steel community, then an economic community and at various stages additional elements have been added as deficiencies became more apparent e.g. structural funds to address social cohesion and regional inequality; the European Parliament to address the democratic deficit; etc. The pandemic has shown the need for a Europe-wide health dimension while the climate emergency and economic crisis drove the EU into launching a €750 Green Deal programme, raising the additional expenditure by issuing common debt. This shattered the financial orthodoxies that ordo-liberals had previously insisted were sacrosanct. The policy shift means that the EU has become a macroeconomic player acquiring some of the financial instruments of a state treasury.

These moves tend to be crab-like, spurred by crises. To date, they have been hardest to implement in areas of foreign policy and security. The traditional right sees these as the historic preserve of the nation-state, while the left is understandably wary of repeating previous imperial adventures at a European level. Until now, NATO has offered the easy option, devolving military matters to the US umbrella but as the US focus shifts there is a dawning recognition that ‘European autonomy’ will have to take greater shape on defence and security.

Some of key questions here include:

  • Where to focus? The near-neighbourhood – not the Asia-Pacific – should be the starting point with Cyprus and Libya two crucial hotspots.
  • How to avoid becoming a new military power in the old mould? Having a strong peace-keeping ambition, deploying the tools of soft power and looking to work closely within a UN framework should be priorities.
  • How to retain meaningful cooperation with the UK despite the rupture of Brexit?

Brexit Spotlight: Let’s talk about the breakthrough on fiscal stimulus: a big moment for Eurozone reform, and a clear step away from austerity. But unfortunately early signs are that it might not be enough to turn back the tide of authoritarian populism. Take Italy for example – the stimulus was a major diplomatic victory for prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the programme. But Conte has since fallen from power. Meanwhile, the two far right parties are surging in the Italian opinion polls in spite of the major injection of European funds. So, it’s not a very positive indicator for the future of Europe? 

National populism has deep roots. The agreement to the European Green Deal (EGD) represented a historic breakthrough for EU economic policy shedding decades of monetarist orthodoxy. However, it’s rather unrealistic to think that new policy statements alone are going to vanquish the populist Right. In any case, no money has yet been spent in Italy. The absolutely crucial priority is to show that it works in practice and that these additional European resources accelerate energy efficiency and insulation to people’s homes, speed up the decarbonisation of energy and transport systems and bring new apprenticeships and green jobs.

Then, there are the political arguments. There is anxiety that the recovery era will be limited and followed by renewed austerity. But it is too early to judge and a longer-term political realignment remains to be won. It’s not just centrists like Draghi and Macron but also the Greek centre-right prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis who along with his Spanish socialist counterpart, Pedro Sánchez sees joint EU debt as a precedent for further EU fiscal integration. Success with the EGD could propel the EU towards a more pronounced break from neoliberalism and greater fiscal integration. It won’t be easy but there’s an opening here that progressives have not had for decades. The role played by the German Social Democrats and Greens in this argument will be pivotal, as will shifting the ‘frugal’ politics of Nordic Social Democrats.

Clearly, winning that battle will be an important part of weakening national populists across Europe.

But it will need action in other areas too – like in tackling COVID – that shows a more capable, competent European leadership able to tackle populists myths.

Brexit Spotlight: Britain’s Johnson government is an example of this authoritarian populist wave. How do we build support for an alternative to his Brexit policy? And what kind of relationship between the UK and EU do you advocate now that we’ve left the European Union? 

We need to tell the story about his Brexit policy. The pandemic has served to disguise its shortcomings and, of course, some of our current woes arise from the consequences of the unregulated, labour market bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher. But the sharp fall in UK exports to Europe; the transfer of companies from the UK to Europe; the shortages of goods and labour: these are all stories that need to be told. Brexiters and Lexiters fail to recognise that autarky is not an option in the 21st century. We live in an interdependent, intertwined economy.

On what to do, two routes are dead-ends. First, UK political membership of the EU is off the agenda for the foreseeable future. The electorate has made its choice – twice. The second cul-de-sac is to bury one’s head in the sand and think that the European issue will go away. This is the option the Labour Party has chosen since the election. However, slinking into abject silence on Europe is an abdication of leadership – and ineffective at that.

Progressives need to avoid both futile gestures and abject surrender. There are many options to the UK-EU relationship that do not involve EU political membership. The threadbare nature of Johnson’s Brexit deal is already clear. Hence it is perfectly reasonable to say that a serious reform of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is necessary. The precise details matter less at this stage than the broad contours but some of the key issues are already apparent:

  • On the economy, the UK could agree to a legal commitment to dynamically align with single market rules. This would free the EU of the fear of being undercut and be a major step in easing business and trading relations in both goods and services.
  • Restoring the rights of UK citizens to work and study in the EU would be accompanied by a reciprocal arrangement  permitting EU citizens to work in the UK subject to a mandatory but automatic registration system. This would enable the UK to manage its labour market flows, as was already technically permissible within EU rules.
  • Permanent forums for cooperation on security, foreign policy and international development could be straightforwardly added to the governance structure of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement so that UK-EU cooperation is embedded on these key issues.

It’s a pragmatic reform package, that all progressive parties should be able to adopt. It would facilitate harmonious relations with our European neighbours for our mutual benefit and remove many of the Brexit-imposed obstacles to business, commerce, research and security. Its promotion would show that there is an alternative to the government’s hard Brexit. 


Jon Bloomfield is an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham; a co-editor of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium blog on Europe’s Green Deal; and author of Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham (Unbound, 2019).