The writer is professor of European Studies at Oxford university and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution
Relations between the UK and EU badly need a reset. At the moment, thick fog in the Channel is penetrated only by lightning flashes of mutual irritation. Yet the war in Ukraine has created a geopolitical context in which such a reset is more necessary than ever for Europe, while the defenestration of British prime minister Boris Johnson offers a domestic political opportunity.
Since the Johnson government moved to breach international law over the Northern Ireland protocol, it was almost impossible to imagine trust being re-established between the EU and that particular occupant of 10 Downing Street. Like most British people, most continental Europeans had long since made up their minds about him.
Unfortunately, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to the Centre for European Reform earlier this week did not offer the bold alternative vision for cross-Channel partnership we require. Clearly focused on winning back Labour Leave voters who defected to the Tories in the 2019 election, his message was “Make Brexit Work”.
This almost implies that the only trouble with Brexit is that the Johnson government hasn’t made it work. After stating that Labour does not want the UK to rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union, he advanced a series of sensible but modest suggestions, starting with resolving the problems around the Northern Ireland protocol by constructive negotiation. His speech was directed entirely at the British public. There was almost nothing there for a continental European audience.
On the other side of the Channel, nobody talks about Brexit any more. As I found on recent trips to Germany, Belgium and France, indifference is leavened only by irritation. The one significant new proposal has come from French president Emmanuel Macron. He suggests a wider European Political Community in which EU-candidate and would-be candidate countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, North Macedonia and Albania would sit alongside non-EU European countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Britain.
A French invitation to join what some will see as a country cousins’ tea party will do little for post-Brexit Britain’s fragile amour propre. If this new Community comes into being, the British government would be wise to participate in it, but this will not be the strategic key to improving the cross-Channel relationship.
So what will? An essential first step was the Conservative party getting rid of the discredited Johnson. If, as seems almost certain, the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol has not been resolved by the time he goes, the next prime minister should remember some wise advice from one of the architects of European integration, Jean Monnet: if you have a problem you cannot solve, enlarge the context. Advancing a broader agenda for resetting the cross-Channel relationship will make it easier to find compromises on specific Brexit legacy issues.
Starmer’s speech pointed to one big area for co-operation: bringing Britain’s academic and scientific research back into the EU’s Horizon programme; re-entering the Erasmus student exchange scheme; making it easier for artists, sportspeople and other professionals to work on both sides; altogether, trying to reverse the worrying erosion of people-to-people ties between the UK and the EU. But there are several other big areas for Johnson’s successor to look at: systematic co-operation with the EU on foreign and security policy, defence, intelligence, environment, energy, digital policy, AI, fintech and biotech. Britain has a lot to offer the overall strength of Europe in these fields. The threats from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, climate change and perhaps another continent-hopping virus make it vital for Europe to maximise that strength.
Since these are merely incremental steps, they must be embedded in a larger narrative. The politics of the past decade, including those that led to the vote for Brexit, remind us that a compelling narrative is as important as what technocrats call reality. In fact, a good narrative helps create a political reality. Johnson’s departure provides an opportunity to craft a new one.
This is no longer about Brexit. Nor, for the foreseeable future, is it about rejoining the EU. The British may warm to the idea of returning to the customs union or single market in the course of this decade but Britain’s two main political parties are nowhere near that point yet.
So this has to be framed as a new partnership between the UK and the EU. You can’t have a partnership if you don’t respect the other as a partner, let alone if you barely acknowledge their existence. Psychologically, it’s obviously difficult for Brexiters to acknowledge that the EU is, in the language of the humorous classic 1066 and All That, a Good Thing. (If it’s a good thing, why did you just leave it?)
Logically, however, it is entirely possible to articulate respect for an EU without the UK. This should be all the easier because Britain has not abandoned the larger post-1945 project of pursuing a Europe whole and free — witness its stalwart support for Ukraine.
In short, there is a good story to tell about a potential new cross-Channel partnership. We just need somebody to start telling it.