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Two Steps Back, One Forward: Institutional Links Between the UK and the EU After Brexit

In this blog, Nemanja Purić analyses the institutional links between the UK and the EU now that the transition period is over and questions the novelty of UK's institutional status. 

Written by Nemanja Purić, Junior Researcher and Teaching Associate at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade.

This blog is part of a policy report called "NEXTEUK – EU and UK Relations: Where will we be in 2031?".


 Following the referendum on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in which the citizens voted FOR withdrawal, the European Union (EU) established a six-step procedure at a meeting of heads of state and heads of government (format of the European Council without the United Kingdom). That procedure nominated the European Commission as the chief negotiator with the participation of the Council and the European Parliament.[1]Having in mind the role of the three institutions of the Union and the dynamics of negotiations, we can observe that the procedure in question is similar to the procedure of negotiations on accession to the EU.[2] The institutional framework created by the aforementioned procedure, as well as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, additionally tell us that the withdrawal process can be characterized as "reverse enlargement", especially in terms of horizontal integration (Miščević and Nedeljković, 2017).

Also, the analysis of the process of withdrawal from typical international organizations suggests that the procedure of exit from the EU is hyper institutionalized. Withdrawal negotiations, as well as the final outcome of Brexit, point to the conclusion that it is not possible to withdraw from the EU without a complete severance of relations with the organization. But it is necessary to look for another modality of relations.

After several delays in signing the Withdrawal Agreement on January 31, 2019, on the last day of the extended deadline, the UK officially left the EU. However, that departure does not mean that all ties between this state and the international organization have been severed. According to Article 126. of the Withdrawal Agreement, there was a transition period until December 31, 2020, during which a Comprehensive Agreement on Future Relations was expected to be reached.[3]

Such Agreement was reached on the last day of the transition period. In that way, the complete severance of economic ties between the UK and the EU was avoided, and at the same time, an appropriate modality of institutional cooperation was found. We are particularly interested in the institutional framework created by this agreement. An innovative structure is the Partnership Council in which a member of the European Commission and a representative of the UK Government at ministerial level will participate.[4] The Agreement also provides different Specialized Committees for each of the areas covered by the deal. It also provides that the European Parliament and the UK Parliament may establish a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly consisting of members of each of the assembly and working as a forum to exchange views on the partnership.[5]

It should be emphasized that the EU uses the opportunity to create institutional ties with third countries through association more than any other international organization. Association can be defined as “a special form of relationship that exists between an international organization and states that are not its members. It is based on an act on the basis of which it is possible to involve the state in the work of the existing bodies of the international organization, or special bodies are created for the purpose of association in which the international organization and the acceding state participate” (Miščević, 2011).

The EU, or formerly the European Community, has tended to connect with third countries on the basis of an association agreement since its inception. At the very beginning, these associated countries were new states, once colonies of member states from the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions. In parallel, European countries outside the European Community have been associated with the European project through the creation of the European Economic Area as soon as the 1960s.[6] The association processes were expanded after the fall of the Berlin Wall as the EU created the European Union Enlargement Policy for the countries of Eastern Europe. European Agreements were created for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which provided for the association of these countries, and the same goal is provided for in the Stabilization and Association Agreements for the countries of the Western Balkans.

The common goal of all these treaties is the association of states to the Community, i.e. the Union. Such association in the EU is created exclusively with the creation of special bodies ensuring the cooperation between the EU and the external countries. Representatives of the Commission participate in all forms of association on the part of the EU to embody the technical dimension of the agreement, while the participation of the European Parliament provides a democratic dimension. Yet, associated countries are not able to participate in the work of the main bodies of the Union. The economic agreement between the UK and the EU creates a very similar institutional framework, and from an institutional perspective the UK appears as an associated state among others. However, it is important to emphasize the characteristics of this association in relation to those we have previously mentioned.

Association is a form of cooperation between a state and an international organization that is established in cases when the state for some reason cannot become a member of the organization. For instance, association was created as a first step in the accession process for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, followed by the process of joining. In contrast, the UK is a unique case because it became the first country to withdraw from the European Union, and then associate to the same organization.

This case gave us a closer insight into the future ties of all countries that potentially withdraw from the EU. Given that the EU has reached a full level of integration in the field of trade, it is quite clear that economic ties cannot simply be severed. In that sense, the institution of association to the EU as an international organization imposes itself as a completely acceptable solution for both parties. In the future, the UK will certainly benefit from the status of an associated state, and the dynamics of relations can be predicted by observing the countries of the European Economic Area.


[1] Informal meeting of the Heads of State or Government of 27 Member States, as well as the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission Brussels, 15 December 2016, avaliable on (Accessed 7.9.2020.)

[2] (Accessed 10.9.2021)

[3] Council Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, Article 126, avaliable 7.9.2020.)

[4] Trade and Cooperation Agreement Between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, of the one part, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northen Ireland, of other part, Official Journal of the European Union, 31. 12. 2021, page 23

[5] Ibid, 27

[6] 23.9.2021.)


Photo credit: vasara/Shutterstock



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