The UK is getting real about Europe – POLITICO | Popgen Tech
Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO.
After six years of chaos and recrimination since Britons voted to leave the European Union, there are signs that the country is showing an unexpected outbreak of sanity in its approach to the bloc.
In his first weeks in office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – himself a Brexiteer – has sent clear signals that he wants a more constructive relationship with Brussels and Paris, and to avoid a trade war with Britain’s biggest economic partner.
Gone is the nationalist bombast of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the sheer devastation wrought by his successor, Liz Truss, on the economy in pursuit of a Brexit dividend. Instead, they both gave way to a sudden burst of pragmatism, as Sunak sought practical solutions to languishing problems.
This change in outlook may be due in part to the realization that Europe must stand united in the face of a threat to its common security from Russian President Vladimir Putin – although this has not stopped Johnson boasting about how the from the EU so-called. the United Kingdom to support Ukraine more than France or Germany.
It could also be because of the severe economic mess Britain is in after the collapse of Truss’s short-lived experiment for a deregulated, low-tax Singapore-on-the-Thames. Or perhaps German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s hard line on any EU deal with the UK has had a sobering effect. Just like the shift in British public opinion, who now think to leave the bloc was a mistake by a margin of 56 percent to 32 percent.
For whatever reason, it’s a welcome start.
In just three weeks, Sunak signed up to an EU defense initiative to make it easier to move armed forces around the continent, he acted to improve Britain’s relations with Ireland and he created political space for a possible compromise on the bitter issue of trade with Northern Ireland, which has soured relations with Brussels since the UK’s exit from the EU.
At their first meeting, Sunak told US President Joe Biden that he wanted a negotiated settlement on the Northern Ireland Protocol by next April – the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. So, sustained pressure from Washington is also starting to pay off.
The prime minister also sought to thaw frosty relations with France, striking a deal with Paris to crack down on migrants crossing the Channel from northern France in small boats. Europe’s only two nuclear powers have now agreed to hold their first bilateral summit since 2018 early next year, with a focus on strengthening defense cooperation.
To be fair, after saying “the jury is still out” on whether Macron is friend or foe of the UK, Truss has already taken a symbolic first step towards reconciliation by agreeing last month to attend the first meeting of the European Political Community. The geopolitical grouping was invented by Macron to bring together the entire European family – except Russia and Belarus.
What’s more, the barrage of Europe-bashing rhetoric from Conservative ministers has all but dried up – at least for now. Suddenly it’s back in fashion to talk nice to the neighbors, if only to ensure they don’t turn off the lights on the UK by cutting energy exports when supplies run low this winter.
The tone of contrition adopted by Northern Ireland Secretary Steve Baker, once the loudest of Brexit hardliners, was one of the most striking signs of this new humility. “I admit that in my own determination and struggle to get the UK out of the European Union I have caused a lot of inconvenience and pain and trouble,” he recently told Ireland’s RTÉ radio. “Some of our actions were not very respectful of Ireland’s legitimate interests. And I want to fix it.”
Meanwhile, encouragingly, Sunak is believed to be considering deprioritising a bill by ousted Brexit ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg to review and reform some 2,400 retained EU laws, standards and regulations by the end of 2023 or scrapping automatically – a massive bureaucratic exercise that has dented business confidence. and pissed off almost everyone. The prime minister now appears receptive to pleas from business to give the review much more time and avoid a regulatory vacuum.
A flurry of EU rules will inevitably spark fresh trade tensions with Brussels – and at a time when the Office for Budget Responsibility, Britain’s independent fiscal watchdog, has just confirmed the growth-shredding damage wrought by Brexit.
This is not the end of Britain’s traumatic break with the bloc. Just how nerve-wracking the issue remains was highlighted when Sunak had to deny reports earlier this week that senior government figures were considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU to ensure frictionless trade. He promised that there would be no alignment with EU rules on his watch.
To paraphrase Churchill, this may not even be the beginning of the end. But this may be the end of the beginning.
Puncturing the illusion of a deregulated fiscal paradise fueled by borrowing without new revenue has had a sobering effect on the UK – giving Sunak a political opportunity to start mending EU ties. Surely the Conservative Party can’t afford to defend another prime minister after Theresa May, Johnson and Truss, can they?
But beyond the conciliatory tone, the real test still lies ahead.
Sunak will have to confront the hardline Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to push through any compromise with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As the province remains part of the EU single market under the withdrawal treaty, such a deal would involve some customs checks in Northern Ireland on goods arriving from Great Britain – even if scaled back from the original plan. It is also bound to involve a role for the Court of Justice of the European Union as the ultimate arbiter of EU law. Both are anathema to the DUP.
But achieving such an agreement would at least open the door to a calmer, more cooperative and sustainable relationship between London and Brussels.
That could be Sunak’s legacy.