Kirsty Hughes: Think relations with the EU are going to improve? Think again

Big global and domestic challenges lie ahead for the European Union in 2022. So, unsurprisingly, tackling groundhog-day Brexit problems with the UK is way down the EU’s list of priorities. Yet EU-UK relations remain a major issue in London if not in Brussels.

The UK, and Scotland, are not, of course, immune from international threats and risks, from climate change to Covid and tense global power stand-offs between the US, China, and Russia. But with the unlamented departure of Lord David Frost, Johnson’s provocative point man on Brexit talks, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, is now meant to reduce her international focus in order to lead on talks over the Northern Ireland protocol.

There is more than a little irony in Truss, at a time of multiple global pressures, having to prioritise talks with the EU on the domestic question of how a hard internal border between Britain and Northern Ireland, agreed by Johnson in 2019, can be eased.

On Sunday, France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, called for a reset of EU-UK relations in the wake of Frost’s departure. But EU politicians are only too wearily aware that Truss will doubtless play to some extent to the Tory backbencher gallery, not least while Johnson’s future as PM looks increasingly in doubt.

“Global Britain” is already, at best, a satirical slogan with the UK enmeshed in endless, circular talks with the EU and growing Brexit damage to its economy, including a £12.6billion hit to trade in goods by this October according to the Centre for European Reform. Liz Truss herself oversaw trade deals with Australia and New Zealand in 2021. The deals, of minimal economic importance, saw the UK capitulate to those two countries’ demands, despite major concerns from UK groups as disparate as climate activists and the farmers’ lobby.

Yet the promised trade deal with the US is not even faintly visible while the UK’s much diminished international power post-Brexit is only too clear. This autumn, the US lifted steel tariffs on EU exports but not the UK due, not least, to its concerns on the strident tone and threats the UK has made over the Northern Ireland protocol. More side-lined Britain than global Britain.

There is a simple way to resolve some of the UK’s undercutting of its own international reputation, diplomacy and economy: reset EU-UK relations in a positive way. That would mean rapidly resolving the talks over managing the Northern Ireland protocol and turning to issues where, despite Brexit, the EU and UK could still positively collaborate.

Ending UK-EU stand-offs over access to fishing waters (where Johnson is apparently quietly giving in), and over handling refugees crossing the Channel, would also allow space for better, strategic discussions on areas from climate change to migration, research and domestic and international security. Indeed, the UK government could take some positive lessons from the Scottish government’s maintenance of good European relations post-Brexit, though that might be a stretch too far for Number Ten.

But to outline such an approach is to highlight its implausibility. Most UK voters may have had enough of endless replays of Brexit fights with Brussels. But Johnson looks fairly addicted to them. And even if the dial is turned down a bit, the Brexiters will need someone other than themselves to blame for sharp drops in trade with the EU, the growing damage especially to small and medium-sized businesses, the fall in UK influence, and the multiple problems created by ending free movement of people.

There is also an ideological antipathy from Johnson and his gang of Brexiters to strategic EU-UK cooperation – which is why no structured foreign policy collaboration was set up when the trade and cooperation deal was agreed a year ago. Johnson wants to strut the world stage with leaders of the US, India, and France and Germany too – but not the EU.

Yet the EU looks to be set on a dynamic path as we head into 2022. The new German coalition government, headed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has adopted some tough climate targets for 2030 including 15 million electric-powered vehicles and 80% of energy from renewables. And Scholz’s government looks more in tune with France’s President Macron on European strategic autonomy, and on China as a systemic rival, than it did under Chancellor Merkel.

Crucial to the EU’s politics next year will be whether Macron is re-elected. But, for now, the new German government, like the new Dutch coalition, is sounding much less neo-liberal – more focused on social spending, on smart and sustainable industrial strategy, even with gentle noises on the debate to come over amending the EU’s fiscal rules post-pandemic (the latter something Scottish independence supporters will doubtless watch with interest).

Multiple challenges remain – from authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary, to the EU’s own reactionary treatment of migration at its external borders, to dealing with Russia, not least with its troops massed on Ukraine’s border. These issues are not going away, nor is the Covid pandemic. But the EU looks in more confident, more progressive shape than it has for a while.

For Johnson’s government, a resurgent EU that is larger and more powerful than the UK will not be treated as a plus. Formal EU-UK foreign policy cooperation structures could perhaps give the UK some small input into, and association with, the EU’s development of its strategic autonomy goal. But that would be anathema to global Britain ideology. And it’s too late for the UK to input into the EU’s new Strategic Compass defence strategy due to be formally agreed in March 2022.

Europe may be looking more social-democratic, interventionist and assertive on the global stage. But a weakened Johnson is facing renewed ire from the many more extreme Tory Brexiter backbenchers who now claim last year’s Brexit trade deal is not hard enough, a deregulated Singapore-on-Thames is back as the new rallying cry. Even if Johnson sticks to his big spending, levelling-up rhetoric, he’s certainly not going to want to compare notes on a more active state with his EU counterparts.

Still, the EU’s more progressive turn will do no harm to the quiet para-diplomacy of Scotland’s European strategy, nor indeed to arguments for independence in the EU. But anyone looking for a better, closer EU-UK relationship in 2022 had better not hold their breath.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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