The writer is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Relations between the UK and the EU are in dire need of a reset. Currently, the thick fog of the English Channel is crossed only by 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 decided to break international law on the Northern Ireland Protocol, it was almost impossible to imagine trust being restored between the EU and this particular occupier of 10 Downing Street. Like most Britons, most continental Europeans had long made up their minds about him.
Unfortunately, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer’s speech at the Center for European Reform earlier this week failed to offer the bold alternative vision of the cross-Channel partnership that we need. Clearly focused on winning back Labor Leave voters who defected to the Tories in the 2019 election, his message was “Make Brexit Work”.
It almost implies that the only problem with Brexit is that the Johnson government didn’t make it work. After saying that Labor did not want the UK to join the EU, the single market or the customs union, he offered a series of sensible but modest suggestions, starting with fixing the problems around the protocol of Northern Ireland through constructive negotiation. His speech was aimed entirely at the British public. There was almost nothing there for a continental European audience.
On the other side of the Channel, no one is talking about Brexit anymore. As I have seen on recent trips to Germany, Belgium and France, indifference is fueled only by irritation. The only major new proposal came from French President Emmanuel Macron. It suggests a wider European Political Community in which EU and candidate countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, North Macedonia and Albania would sit alongside non-EU European countries such as Norway, Switzerland and Great Britain.
A French invitation to join what some will see as a tea party among country cousins will do little for Britain’s fragile post-Brexit self-esteem. If this new Community sees the light of day, the British government would be wise to participate, but this will not be the strategic key to improving the cross-Channel relationship.
So how are you? A critical first step was for the Conservative Party to get rid of the discredited Johnson. If, as seems almost certain, the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol is not resolved by then, 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 can’t solve, broaden the context. Pushing forward a broader agenda to reset the cross-Channel relationship will make it easier to find compromise on specific issues related to the legacy of Brexit.
Starmer’s speech highlighted a big area of cooperation: bringing UK academic and scientific research back into the EU’s Horizon programme; re-enter the Erasmus student exchange program; facilitate the work of artists, athletes and other professionals on both sides; quite, trying to reverse the worrying erosion of people-to-people ties between the UK and the EU. But Johnson’s successor must consider several other major areas: systematic cooperation with the EU on foreign and security policy, defence, intelligence, environment, energy, digital policy, AI, fintech and biotechnology. Britain has much to offer Europe’s overall strength in these areas. Threats from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, climate change and possibly another virus crossing continents make it vital for Europe to maximize this strength.
Since these are just incremental steps, they need to be integrated into a larger narrative. The politics of the past decade, including the one that led to the Brexit vote, remind us that a compelling narrative is as important as what technocrats call reality. In fact, a good narrative helps to create a political reality. Johnson’s departure offers an opportunity to create a new one.
It’s not about Brexit anymore. Nor is it about joining the EU in the foreseeable future. The British might be in favor of returning to the customs union or the single market during this decade, but the two main political parties in the UK are far from there yet.
This must therefore be presented 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 is obviously difficult for Brexiters to recognize that the EU is, in the language of the humorous classic 1066 and all that, a good thing. (If that’s a good thing, why did you drop it?)
Logically, however, it is entirely possible to articulate respect for an EU without the UK. This should be all the easier as Britain has not abandoned the wider post-1945 project of pursuing a Europe whole and free – evidenced by its unwavering support for Ukraine.
In short, there is a good story to be told about a potential new cross-Channel partnership. We just need someone to start saying it.