29th Jan 2023


Can King Charles III reset the broken Brexit relationship?

  • 'Friend or Foe?' France has already been chosen as the location of the new King's first official visit abroad (Photo: BBC news/screengrab)
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The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey some 10 days ago was a ceremony which marked the end of a mourning period during which millions of people globally paid tributes to the late monarch, the longest-serving in Britain's history.

Among the participating foreign dignitaries were the heads of state of all 27 EU member states, including French president Emmanuel Macron and German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In addition, the EU as an organisation was represented by Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission respectively.

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European leaders also paid personal tributes to the late Queen. Both Michel and von der Leyen described her as an anchor of stability in a rapidly changing world.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also thanked her, on behalf of the Union, for her "unique contribution" to building peace and reconciliation in the world. Many ordinary Europeans also brought flowers to and signed condolence books in British embassies around the Union.

This was an impressive demonstration of solidarity from the EU towards a country that left the Union in 2020, and with whom the EU's relations have never recovered.

In fact, EU-UK relations have deteriorated dramatically due to the 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK's acrimonious EU withdrawal process, frequent disagreements between London and Brussels over the Northern Ireland protocol, and the continuing unfriendly rhetoric coming from 10 Downing Street.

However, the reactions of EU leaders and citizens to the Queen's death demonstrate that Europeans on the continent still feel deeply connected to the UK, regardless of Brexit and the ensuing political frictions that it has caused.

Capitalise on goodwill

The British government could capitalise on the goodwill that the Queen's passing away has generated towards the UK overseas.

As noted by Lord Rickett, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, "there is a chance to repair the country's damaged international relationships, particularly in Europe".

In the aftermath of the Queen's funeral, the sentiment in Brussels and other EU capitals will be more favourable to a détente than it has been at any time since 2016.

While this should be good news for the new prime minister Liz Truss, her future strategy towards Europe remains far from clear.

Although Truss campaigned to keep the UK in the EU in 2016, she subsequently changed her position and her victory in the Tory leadership race caused unease in Brussels due to her recent hardline approach toward the EU.

She has previously suggested that, as prime minister, she would be willing to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland protocol —notwithstanding its position as a legal commitment concluded as part of the UK's EU withdrawal agreement.

She has also said that the jury is still out on whether French president Macron is Britain's "friend or foe", which stands in marked contrast to France's (and Marcon's) dignified response to late Queen's passing.

It seems that the UK government has already begun to take advantage of the changed sentiment in Europe, albeit cautiously.

Olive branch?

At the side-lines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Truss and Macron held a bilateral meeting to discuss energy security and the war in Ukraine. Ahead of the meeting, Truss used a more conciliatory tone than before, emphasising that she wanted to work "constructively" with the French leader.

However, fears remain that the new PM will continue to prioritise domestic Conservative party concerns over larger national ones.

The UK should also extend a symbolic political olive branch to Brussels to maintain the positive sentiment on the continent. Given that Truss' government will conduct a new review of the UK's defence and foreign policy, London could announce that it would like to participate in certain aspects of EU defence cooperation as a third-country, like the US, Canada, and Norway already do.

Beyond getting criticised by certain hard-line Brexiteers, this action would cost very little for the UK.

However, the potential payoff could be significant. EU defence cooperation is an intergovernmental domain in which the Union's supranational institutions play a very limited role. The UK would therefore not have to "take orders" from Brussels or incorporate EU rules in its national legislation.

Enter King Charles

And this is where the British monarchy come in.

Remarkably, King Charles III is now in a unique position to help reset Britain's role in Europe. France has already been chosen as the location of the new King's first official visit abroad.

While the potential impacts of "royal diplomacy" should not be overstated, they can send a clear message as to wider state priorities. They also, in the context of British-French relations have real historical significance.

It was King Edward VII whose diplomacy in the early twentieth century helped facilitate the signing of the 'entente cordiale' between the UK and France in 1904. That agreement laid the basis for democratic Europe's victories in 1918 and 1945. Then, as now, the new British monarch come to the throne in the shadow of his long-serving mother (Queen Victoria served from 1837 to 1901).

France should be the starting point. Britain, France and the EU continue to share many common challenges including protecting democracy in Ukraine and combatting climate change.

History shows the way forward.

Author bio

Dr Niklas Nováky and Dr Eoin Drea are senior research officers at the European People's Party think-tank, the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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