Paul Taylor is editor-in-chief of POLITICO.
After six years of chaos and recriminations since Britons voted to leave the European Union, there are signs the country is showing an unexpected burst of common sense in its approach to the bloc.
In his first weeks in office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – a Brexiteer himself – sent clear signals that he wanted a more constructive relationship with Brussels and Paris, and to avoid a trade war with the biggest economic partner of Great Britain.
Gone are the nationalist bombardments of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the havoc wrought by his successor Liz Truss who crashed the economy in search of a Brexit dividend. Instead, they’ve both given way to a sudden burst of pragmatism, as Sunak seeks practical solutions to festering problems.
This shift in perspective may be partly due to the realization that Europe must remain united in the face of a threat to its common security from Russian President Vladimir Putin – although that hasn’t stopped Johnson from bragging of how leaving the EU had supposedly freed the UK to be more pro-Ukraine than France or Germany.
It may also be due to the difficult economic situation Britain finds itself in after the collapse of Truss’ 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. So has British public opinion, which now thinks leaving the bloc was a mistake by a margin of 56% to 32%.
For some reason, that’s a welcome start.
In just three weeks, Sunak signed an EU defense initiative to facilitate the movement of armed forces to the continent, he acted to improve Britain’s relationship with Ireland and he created political space for a possible compromise on the controversial trade issue. with Northern Ireland, which has poisoned relations with Brussels since the UK’s exit from the EU.
At their first meeting, Sunak told US President Joe Biden that he wanted to have a negotiated settlement on the Northern Ireland Protocol in place by next April – the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. . So the sustained pressure from Washington is also starting to bear fruit.
The prime minister has also sought to unfreeze frosty relations with France, striking a deal with Paris to crack down on migrants crossing the English 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, focused on boosting defense cooperation.
To be fair, after saying that “the jury is still out on whether Macron was a friend or an enemy of the UK, Truss had already taken a first symbolic step towards reconciliation by agreeing to attend the first meeting. of the European Political Community last month.The geopolitical grouping was devised by Macron to bring together the entire European family – with the exception of Russia and Belarus.
Moreover, the torrent of Europe-bashing rhetoric from Conservative ministers has all but dried up, at least for now. So pleasing neighbors is back in fashion, if only to make sure they don’t turn off the UK’s lights by cutting off energy exports when supplies run tight this winter. .
The tone of contrition adopted by Northern Irish Minister Steve Baker, once Brexit’s toughest supporter, was one of the most striking signals of this new found humility. “I recognize in my own determination and struggle to get the UK out of the European Union that I have caused a lot of inconvenience, pain and hardship,” he told Irish radio RTÉ recently. . “Some of our actions were not very respectful of the legitimate interests of Ireland. And I want to fix it. »
Meanwhile, encouragingly, Sunak is reportedly considering deprioritizing a bill by ousted Brexit ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg to revise, reform or automatically scrap some 2,400 retained EU laws, standards and regulations by the end of the day. end of 2023 – a massive bureaucratic exercise that has shaken business confidence. and irritated almost everyone. The Prime Minister now appears receptive to calls from businesses to allow much more time for scrutiny and avoid a regulatory vacuum.
A bonfire of EU rules would inevitably cause further trade tensions with Brussels – and at a time when the Office of Budget Responsibility, the UK’s independent fiscal watchdog, has just confirmed the damage to growth inflicted by Brexit.
This is not the end of Britain’s traumatic break with the bloc. How key the issue remains was underscored when earlier this week Sunak had to deny reports that senior government officials were considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU to ensure frictionless trade. He vowed there would be no alignment with EU rules under his watch.
To paraphrase Churchill, this may not even be the beginning of the end. But this may be the end of the beginning.
Breaking through the illusion of a deregulated tax haven fueled by borrowing with no new revenue has had a sobering effect on the UK – giving Sunak a window of political opportunity to begin mending ties with the EU. After all, the Conservative Party can’t afford to defenestrate another Prime Minister after Theresa May, Johnson and Truss, can they?
But beyond the conciliatory tone, the real test is still ahead of us.
Sunak will face the hardline Democratic Unionist Protestant Party (DUP) to push through any compromise with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As the province continues to be part of the EU’s single market under the Withdrawal Treaty, any such deal will necessarily involve customs checks in Northern Ireland on goods from Britain – even if they are reduced compared to the original plan. It will also entail 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 securing such an agreement would at least open the door to a calmer, more cooperative and lasting relationship between London and Brussels.
This could be Sunak’s legacy.