Boris Johnson’s government is disorientated. Six months after severing its EU ties, it is struggling to understand why it is no longer afforded privileged treatment. The prime minister signed a Brexit bargain with Brussels. To his seeming surprise, the European Commission expects him to honour it.
Lord David Frost, the minister steering relations with the EU, wears socks emblazoned with the UK national flag when he meets his European counterparts. Perhaps he imagines he is making a point. He is forever declaring that he sits at the Brussels table as spokesperson for a “sovereign equal”. Odd really. The EU is an international institution rather than a sovereign state.
Frost is unhappy that Britain is treated as a “third country”. The government, he has told MPs, has only recently “internalised” the change in dynamics. Securing an accord on implementation of complex trade arrangements for Northern Ireland had been more difficult than expected. He thinks Brussels should afford a special place to “big” neighbours.
It might have been hoped that, if nothing else, Brexit would put an end to the collision of neuroses that have too often informed Britain’s relations with its neighbours. Instead, Frost’s protestations and the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol suggest nothing has changed. The ruling emotions in the UK still veer between bombastic exceptionalism and needy victimhood.
Johnson’s fantasy of a world-beating “Global Britain” standing above mere “European” powers jostles with fears that the French, Germans and the rest are forever conspiring against Britannia. Worse is a suspicion they may be pulling ahead. The confusion of emotions is at its most acute in relations with Germany. Britain, Brexiters regularly tell themselves, won the war. Germany’s economy has stolen the peace.
In her Bruges speech in 1988, Margaret Thatcher laid out a vision of a Europe of free democracies stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. When the Berlin Wall crumbled a year later, she assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Britain would do nothing to hasten the dismantlement of the Warsaw Pact.
Anything, it seemed, was better than a reunited Germany. Decades on, Thatcher’s Germanophobia remains a powerful strand in the thinking of her party’s Brexiters. During the 2016 referendum campaign, Johnson was unapologetic about likening the EU’s supposed ambitions for a “superstate” to Hitler’s attempt to secure European domination.
This week England’s footballers are celebrating beating Germany in the Euro 2020 tournament. One hopes that victory will exorcise some of the anti-German demons summoned up in the past by the tabloids when the two teams have met — not least because, post-Brexit, Britain badly needs Germany as a friend.
When he thinks about it, Johnson understands this. While foreign secretary, he once asked his officials whether Angela Merkel had been involved with East Germany’s Stasi secret police. This week he will attempt to charm the German chancellor when she visits his Chequers country house.
Allowing ideology to rule national interests, Johnson’s government has set its face against sensible collaboration with the institutions of the EU. What’s left, if the UK is to retain any sort of voice in what happens on its own continent, are stronger bilateral relations with its European peers.
Johnson’s pitch is for a new “special relationship” between London and Berlin. He should expect short shrift from his guest. Merkel, her officials say, thinks him at once unserious and untrustworthy. Of course, she will say, the two nations have shared interests and, in many respects, shared outlooks. Their foreign ministries have just signed a joint declaration to work together on foreign and security policy. But to Merkel’s mind there are conditions attached to such co-operation.
Most obviously, the UK must keep its word and stop trying to renege on the Northern Ireland protocol. And if Johnson’s government wants to deepen bilateral ties, it must be prepared to work with the EU’s institutions. To put it bluntly, Berlin has neither the time nor inclination to agree one set of arrangements with its EU partners and then start fresh negotiations with the UK.
This is something else for Johnson and his ministers to “internalise”. Britain remains obsessed by the EU even after it has left. Its erstwhile partners have more pressing things on their minds than their relationship with a “third country”. Brexiters talk about a German threat. Well, there is one. It goes by the name of indifference.
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