Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO.
After six years of chaos and recrimination since Britons voted to leave the European Union, there are signs that the country is showing an unexpected outbreak of common sense in its approach to the bloc.
In his first weeks in office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – a Brexiteer himself – has sent clear signals that he wants a more constructive relationship with Brussels and Paris, and to avoid a trade war with Britain’s biggest economic partner.
Gone are the nationalist bombast of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the sheer havoc wrought by his successor Liz Truss crashing the economy in pursuit of a Brexit dividend. Instead, they have both given way to a sudden burst of pragmatism, as Sunak is seeking practical solutions to festering problems.
This change in outlook may be partly due to the realization that Europe needs to stand united in the face of a threat to its common security from Russian President Vladimir Putin – although that hadn’t stopped Johnson from bragging about how leaving the EU had supposedly freed the United Kingdom to be more supportive of Ukraine than France or Germany.
It may also be due to the dire economic straits Britain is 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. As may have the shift in British public opinion, which now thinks leaving the bloc was a mistake by a margin of 56 percent to 32 percent.
For whatever reason, it is a welcome start.
In just three weeks, Sunak has signed up to an EU defense initiative to make it easier to move armed forces around the Continent, he’s acted to improve Britain’s relations with Ireland, and he’s created political space for a possible compromise on the vexed issue of trade with Northern Ireland, which has bedeviled relations with Brussels since the UK’s exit from the EU.
At their first meeting, Sunak told United States President Joe Biden that he wants 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, sustained pressure from Washington is starting to pay off as well.
The prime minister has also sought to thaw frosty relations with France, clinching an agreement with Paris to clamp down on migrants crossing the 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, focusing on strengthening defense cooperation.
To be fair, after saying “the jury is still out” on whether Macron was a friend or foe of the UK, Truss had already taken a symbolic first step towards reconciliation by agreeing to attend the first meeting of the European Political Community last month. The geopolitical grouping was dreamed up by Macron to bring the entire European family together — except Russia and Belarus.
What’s more, the torrent of Europe-bashing rhetoric from Conservative ministers has almost dried up — at least for now. Suddenly, making nice with the neighbors is back in fashion, if only to ensure they don’t turn the lights off on the UK by cutting energy exports when supplies get tight this winter.
The tone of contrition adopted by Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker, once the hardest of Brexit hardliners, was one of the most striking signals of this new humility. “I recognize in my own determination and struggle to get the UK out of the European Union that I caused a great deal of inconvenience and pain and difficulty,” he told Ireland’s RTÉ radio recently. “Some of our actions were not very respectful of Ireland’s legitimate interests. And I want to put that right.”
Meanwhile, encouragingly, Sunak is reportedly considering deprioritizing a bill by ousted Brexit ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg to review, reform or automatically scrap some 2,400 retained EU laws, standards and regulations by the end of 2023 — a massive bureaucratic exercise that has rattled business confidence and angered almost everyone. The prime minister now seems receptive to pleas from business to give the review much more time and avoid a regulatory vacuum.
A bonfire of EU rules would inevitably provoke new trade tensions with Brussels — and at a time when the Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain’s independent fiscal watchdog, has just confirmed the growth-shredding damage inflicted by Brexit.
This is not the end of Britain’s traumatic rupture with the bloc. Just how neuralgic the issue remains was highlighted when earlier this week, Sunak had to deny reports that senior government figures were considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU to ensure frictionless trade. He vowed there would be no alignment with EU rules on his watch.
To paraphrase Churchill, it may not even be the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Puncturing the illusion of a deregulated fiscal paradise fueled by borrowing without new revenue has had a sobering effect on the UK — offering Sunak a political window of opportunity to start fixing EU ties. After all, the Conservative Party can’t afford to defend yet another prime minister after Theresa May, Johnson and Truss, can it?
But beyond the conciliatory tone, the real test still lies ahead.
Sunak will have to confront the hard-line Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to push through any compromise with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As the province remains part of the EU single market under the withdrawal treaty, any such deal is bound to involve some customs checks in Northern Ireland on goods arriving from Great Britain – even if they are scaled down from the original plan. It is also bound to involve 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 sustainable relationship between London and Brussels.
That could be Sunak’s legacy.