Six reasons why those who want to shift the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union need to now think in five-year cycles

29th December 2020

Imagine you are in some remote rural area where the bus or train only comes on a given day at a given time.

This is what it will be like for those who want to substantially change the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union once the trade and cooperation agreement is in place.

But instead of the the weekly or monthly bus or train, this cycle will be every five years.

And if that opportunity is missed, then it will be another five years before the opportunity comes around again.

This is because of one major reason – and also (perhaps) because of five other reasons.


The first reason, as this blog set out yesterday, is that the European Union itself works in five-year cycles.

Each European Commission is appointed for five years and each European Parliament is elected for five years.

The Presidents of the European Council tend to also have five-year terms.

And after each five-year cycle, the European Union project is then (in effect) handed over to a new European Commission and President of the European Council.

It would thereby appear to be no accident that the review cycle for the trade and cooperation agreement is five years.

This means the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom will be dealt with in a manner that is convenient to Brussels and not London.


This leads to the second reason.

The United Kingdom is no longer sufficiently important to disrupt the normal European Union political and policy life-cycle.

This will come as a shock to many in the United Kingdom who are used to demanding time and immediate attention from the European Union.

From the supposed re-negotiation of 2016, through the withdrawal negotiations, to the relationship negotiations, the European Union kept responding to the sound of the clicking fingers of the United Kingdom.

And the European Union had to do this, as the departure of a Member State could not be taken lightly.

But this effortless priority is now over.

Any substantial changes to the new relationship will have to fit in with other matters and be dealt with at what is the natural pace of Brussels.

And, in any case, many in the European Union are bored and tired of Brexit.


The third reason is that it is only with five-year cycles that the European Union will be able to assess the stability and sustainability of any United Kingdom political and policy position on the European Union.

Even if there were some sudden political shift in favour of the United Kingdom joining, say, a customs union or becoming part of the single market, the European Union would want to see if that was a settled and consensual position.

The European Union is all too aware of the rapid convulsions that the European Union issue can cause to the politics of the United Kingdom.

Remember that in 2015 there was a general election in the United Kingdom where every major party was in favour of membership of the European Union – and three prime ministers and two general elections later, the United Kingdom is no longer a member state.

And 2015 was, well, five years ago.

The European Union has no interest in a substantial shift in its relationship with the United Kingdom which could quickly become undone.


The fourth reason is also to do with the United Kingdom.

Will there even be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in five or ten years’ time?

As this blog has previously averred, two natural consequences of Brexit are a united Ireland and an independent Scotland.

These are not things which will necessarily, still less automatically, happen.

But they are foreseeable.

And so five-year cycles will allow the European Union to see not only how the politics and policies of the United Kingdom settle down, but also how the United Kingdom itself and its constituent parts settle down.


And this structural point goes both ways – for the fifth reason is that the European Union itself in five and ten years’ time may itself be a different creature to what it currently is.

Freed from the reluctance and relentless scepticism of the United Kingdom, the European Union can now go in a different direction.

And so not only will the European Union want to see what the United Kingdom is like in five and ten years’ time, it will want to see what its own position will be like.

It will not be re-fighting the issues of 2016 or 2020 in its engagement with the United Kingdom, like some geo-political historical re-enactment society.

Regardless of what changes (if any) happen within and to the United Kingdom, the European Union will be thinking in terms of what suits it in 2026, or 2031, or whenever.


The final reason is beyond the power of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.

In 2026, and in 2031, and so on, the world itself may be very different from now.

Many things may be different: a post-Trump (or revived Trump) United States, a post-Putin (or retained Putin) Russia, China becoming (or not becoming) the world’s largest economy, ongoing pandemics and climate change, and so on.

It may then suit the European Union and the United Kingdom to huddle together – or to huddle apart.


In setting all this out, I do not wish to give false hope to Remainers/Rejoiners that if with sufficient focus and energy, they could shove the United Kingdom back towards the European Union in 2026 or 2031 or so on.

Indeed, the five-year cycle could even lead to greater divergence.

(And there is a non-trivial chance the United Kingdom may terminate the relationship agreement with one year’s notice.)

But if there is to be a closer relationship – or even an eventual application to rejoin – the United Kingdom will have to have regard to the five-year cycles of the European Union.

As I mentioned above, the days of snapping fingers for attention are over.


My own view, for what it is worth, is that I hope the five-year cycle leads to an increasingly solid and sustainable association arrangement between the United Kingdom and the European Union – and that it becomes something that endures perhaps longer than the actual membership.

And I hope that the five-year cycles are used to adjust the relationship appropriately.

(I also support an Ireland united by consent and an independent Scotland and Wales, and these developments will also, in my opinion, be easier with an association agreement between United Kingdom (or just England) and the European Union.)

But these are mere hopes, and they can be dashed or discarded.

What is and will be in place, regardless of hopes (or fears), is that it will not be quick and easy for the United Kingdom – or England – to move substantially towards the European Union, let alone rejoin.

The eventful, exhausting 2016-2021 Brexit five-year cycle is over.

Let us see what future five-year cycles bring.


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27 thoughts on “Six reasons why those who want to shift the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union need to now think in five-year cycles”

  1. You write: ‘My own view, for what it is worth, is that I hope the five-year cycle leads to an increasingly solid and sustainable association arrangement between the United Kingdom and the European Union – and that it becomes something that endures perhaps longer than the actual membership.’

    I wish I had your optimism. In this age of instant gratification and media bias the more likely outcome is your suggestion that the agreement will be torn up as being bad for Britain. The union disintegration may well precede that though separation of Wales from England may take a little longer.

    Boundary changes and the removal of the fixed term parliament act will just add to the fuel. Dark days ahead.

    1. I expressly said this was a ‘hope’ – and as such was not (necessarily) an expression of optimism.

      As any football fan knows, hopes are there to be dashed. One can be hopeful that Aston Villa do well, even if you are not actually optimistic that they will do so.

  2. Will there even be a UK in five years? What are the chances of Scottish independence, followed rapidly by an application to join the EU?

    Will there be a United Ireland in five years? There’s certainly a lot of talk about that in N Ireland; and even if the DUP are against, they have shown themselves, paradoxically, to be driving a UI by their support for Brexit.

    And Wales? Is there any real chance of Welsh independence within five years?

      1. You do; but the way the post is constructed seems to be on the assumption of the continuation of the UK as a single entity. I’d suggest, that even if Scottish independence hasn’t been achieved/completed, that its possibility would considerably influence the EU’s thinking. As would Irish Unity; the EU has invested considerable time and money into the problems around the border.

        It’s also very clear that the “UK government” is really an “English government” and that the Tories are really “English nationalists”, and the EU will be very aware of that. There’s not much likelihood of much change in the next few years, or even after the next general election.

        1. The EU won’t want a rehash of the 2016 referendum.

          I reckon they’d want a full-throated endorsement from the UK if we want to rejoin and possibly none of the opt-outs that so easily enabled Brexit. The UK may have to adopt the Euro and be in a Schengen area.

          I don’t see the public accepting such demands in the short term.

      1. Under an association agreement, do u think this could include membership of either single market or customs union or both? I’d argue it will have to (in the long term) for the UK economy to prosper.

  3. Glad that in discussing the possible fracturing of the UK you mention Wales, which is usually ignored in such discussions: support for independence is now at something over 30 per cent.

    Unlike Scotland and NI though, which were both in favour of remaining in the EU, Wales was, like England, for Brexit.

    But the pandemic has seen the Senedd taking a line somewhat different from other parts of UK, and Drakeford has let it be known that relations with Westminster are less than close.

    Straws in the wind?

    1. I believe that the Leave vote in Wales was partly due to the English residents there. Welsh independence seems unlikely but 30-40 years ago Scottish Independence seemed a minority interest. Maggie Thatcher trying out the poll tax there helped to galvanise that into greater action.

  4. It seems to me that the real problem going forward is that the five year cycle provided by operation of law within the EU is not married to a comparable cyclical focus in the UK. This is particularly so where a PM had until recently and will shortly recover the right to engage in a bit of political creative destruction when the power to decide the timing of elections is restored to him. This politically valuable mechanism that allows him or her to whip in the pack does not reflect the rhythm and reality of EU policy development and implementation. There is little likelihood that they will ever be in kilter (unless accidently by some sort of Grand Conjunction). There will have to be a sufficiently powerful PM with a likely double mandate before the groundwork can begin to build another tunnel .. such as a PM who won an election on a single popular issue with a massive personal mandate .. what is sure is that any future prime minster will think long and hard about the wisdom of putting the question to the country in a referendum.

  5. as always an interesting analysis. The other issue that the European Union will be engaged with is what to do about member states who materially diverge from its core liberal values (Hungary, Poland). That may well occupy it for a long time and lead to profound and unpredictable outcomes. Sadly I don’t see England rejoining the EU within my lifetime (I am 64). Scotland may be a different matter.

  6. I think you are spot on regarding Brexit enabling Scottish independence and a United Ireland.
    I speak as a Remain activist and in the EU’s place I wouldn’t readmit UK/England for a generation, why have all that hassle? I hear this from relatives abroad. Also, slightly cynically, by then many Leavers would have truly left.
    Scotland joining EU will certainly depend on Spain’s agreement and not wishing to provide encouragement to their own separatists.

  7. Interesting points. The next few years will be interesting, not least the interplay of COVID with post-transition UK in 2021, in a political arena that no longer needs to heed the Farage-style rudeness or populist protestations of a fractured UK.

  8. One minor but obvious consequence if Northern Ireland and Scotland go their separate ways is that these were the parts of the UK that voted Remain, so the task of Rejoiners is that much more difficult when dealing only with England and Wales. Plus a fair proportion of the public just don’t want to hear about Brexit again, so can’t necessarily be assumed to support Rejoin even though they think leaving was a mistake.

    So to me the logical approach is to take things a step at a time. Businesses will complain about the customs red tape and ask for it to be reduced, creating an opportunity for a future government to suggest joining the CU while not in any way allowing freedom of movement. Then, 5 or 10 years later, see if economic conditions, politics or just simple demographic change make freedom of movement a more viable demand.

    In the 2024 election, the campaign slogan could well be “we’ve just lost Scotland, let’s not let these nationalists cost us anything more.” (except someone better at politics than me will need to come up with a better way of saying it!)

  9. Thank you. Cogent and salutary as always. One consequence for Remainers, Rejoiners, or whatever we will now call ourselves to preserve that identity, is that we must now focus on preserving what remains of our constitution, recovering what has been lost to the Brexit coup, and enacting what reforms are necessary to insure against another such coup in the future. These will not be simple or easy tasks, especially if Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have gone their own ways. Which suggests that we need a forum for the pursuit of such issues more substantial and more open than any that (as far as I know) now exists. Certainly, none of the political parties is remotely capable of addressing it.

    Speak cautiously of Northern Ireland. Twenty years of peace is by no means enough to have ensured that constitutional change will be either pursued or resisted without violence. It is still a dangerous place.

  10. This is interesting – thank you. It makes me think that this deal might (perhaps perversely) be good for the UK, particularly for those who might value a closer relationship. The five year cycle is one reason, as it might just take the heat out of the topic except when there is a UK GE (next one due 2024); then it might focus much needed attention on what we actually need (rather than want) from the relationship (something that hasn’t really happened before).

    Anther reason it might be good it that it seems to mark the extent of our separation. At its most extreme, the Brexit ambition seemed to be to break free of the EU’s gravitational pull (perhaps even breaking the EU in the process). Now however, it appears we have merely launched ourselves into a somewhat more distant orbit – but we remain a satellite, albeit a large one.

    I suspect that we have gone far enough to sate the demands of all but the most ardent Brexiters. I also suspect that many people will notice what we have lost (pet passports, EHIC, Erasmus – all those small things that add up and affect people personally, not non-obvious stuff like Rules of Origin) long before they notice any discernible benefits. At the same time, the deal embeds a form of ratchet – it will always be easier to find agreement with the EU from now on than it will be to force further divergence, which may well cost us in terms of added trade barriers and sanctions.

    As such, I envisage a slow, grinding process of renegotiating some of the benefits we have so carelessly thrown away. In time, that may well lead to an association agreement that looks more like the EEA/EFTA arrangement (much favoured by some pragmatic leavers and remainers). Perhaps we may even recover our Freedom of Movement before I am too old to use it.

  11. Another angle worth some thought is how close the UK government will get to the USA government. On any objective analysis the USA now looks like a dysfunctional, deeply-divided state: its democratic institutions and processes are severely damaged. It is a state possessing massive military power, very weakly subject to democratic, and even executive, control, and it is the base for powerful global corporations that seem able to manipulate government and determine public opinion. That could get worse, not better; whereas the UK, feeling much weaker and isolated after Brexit, may need closer association with, and protection by, the still Anglo-Saxon-orientated superpower. Perhaps many in the UK see the US as the “logical” counterweight to the hated EU?
    The disUnited States and the disUnited Kingdom may be a match made not in heaven but in hell!

  12. “The United Kingdom is no longer sufficiently important to disrupt the normal European Union political and policy life-cycle.”
    Dearest ERG,

    what do you make of this ?


  13. “The eventful, exhausting 2016-2021 Brexit five-year cycle is over.
    Let us see what future five-year cycles bring.”

    let me rephrase a bit:

    “The eventful, exhausting 2016-2021 Brexit five-year cycle is over.
    Let us see what the future BREXIT five-year cycles bring.”

  14. The best recruiting sergeant for rejoining the EU would have been a “no deal” Brexit. Instead, we will have a third rate, but manageable relationship with the EU which will not engender the ire of the British enough to make a re-joining inevitable. However, even the greatest dullards will not be duped into believing the Brexit hype of “mega-trade deals”; “buccanneering Britain”; and “they need us more than we need them” as economic reality bites. These folk are likely to get angry.

    There is no value to the UK in being on the periphery of the EU via membership of the EEA or a similar body. The UK will want to have a say in determining EU foreign policy; environmental policy; standards and directives over goods and services, not be a “rule taker” (reality bites Brexit on the bum). The EU and the sovereign nation states from which it is comprised know well that Brexit was a Conservative Party psychodrama and that whilst they are currently the government of the UK, they are not “the UK” and eventually, their own devisions will consume them – the cracks are already starting to become visible. As this happens, the centre ground of a modern, pro-European, pro-consensus is going to become available – unless freed from the chains of its far left wing, Labour will be unable to exploit it which may give rise for a new party to enter the fray if, as I think, the LibDems are a spent force.

  15. Although the agreement has five-yearly review periods, an agreement may be altered. If both parties wish to review matters outside the five-yearly cycle, they can agree to do so.

    There is also a 12-month termination clause (clause 181) which may be exercised by either party. So if one party wishes to review matters whilst the other wants to maintain the status quo, the first party can trigger clause 181 and start the whole deal-or-no-deal saga all over again.
    Note: I have included the middle initial in my name above to distinguish me from my namesake who commented at the top of this post.

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