Both sides must overcome the animosity of recent days if they are to manage future problems
So much for the new partnership between Britain and the EU. Their relationship, mired in mistrust since the day that Britain voted for Brexit in 2016, had supposedly taken a turn for the better after the two sides sealed a trade deal in December. The European Commission lauded the deal as a “new beginning,” while Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, described it as a new “special relationship.” It has taken mere weeks for the reality to kick in.
It began with an outcry in Brussels over Britain’s refusal to grant the bloc’s ambassador in London full diplomatic status. Then a furious row erupted between the EU and AstraZeneca, which turned into a state-to-state dispute over vaccine production. Last Friday, the Commission introduced an export ban on EU-produced vaccines—and initially sought to prevent them entering Northern Ireland by using a special safeguard procedure in the withdrawal treaty, though later backed down.
That the UK-EU relationship is filled with tension is unsurprising after the collective trauma of nearly four years of negotiations. In Brussels, Britain is now viewed as a country that threatened the integrity of the European project. For its part, London sees the EU as a part of its past rather than its future, an organisation unreasonable with its demands and unwilling to treat Britain with the respect due to a sovereign equal. Resentment is a difficult position from which to build a new beginning.
The question now is not whether Britain and the EU can be special friends. Rather, they face a choice between building a cordial partnership grounded in normality, or an acrimonious one filled with provocation, political wrangling and complex legal disputes.
Of all the mistakes made during the Brexit process, the biggest one would be to let mutual suspicion and paranoia define the spirit of the new relationship.
The problem with the Commission’s actions last week was not so much its decision to trigger the safeguard clause; regardless of its political or moral merits, either side can consider using the special procedure—the now-infamous “Article 16”—in exceptional circumstances and to the extent that they meet strict conditions. Rather, it was the Commission’s failure to notify the UK of its intention which was both unlawful and irresponsible. In this way, it behaved no differently to Britain when it sought to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol with domestic legislation last autumn, before any attempts to resolve the problems with Brussels more amicably.
Both sorry episodes demonstrate not just the acute lack of trust, but also the consequences when one side chooses to act contrary to its obligations. Such actions are bound to fail, but not before burning political capital and undermining goodwill.
True, there are some structural frictions that will be hard to avoid. The EU will find it difficult to trust Britain until it makes clear what it intends to use Brexit for: how far it will substantially diverge from “retained” EU rules on its statute book and whether any such divergence will undermine the single market. Britain is now seen by the EU as a strategic competitor—and will be treated as such. Johnson’s government, for its part, will be reluctant to go to great lengths to cooperate with Brussels. Maintaining active institutional links is anathema to many senior Brexiteers in the Cabinet, for whom the purpose of leaving the EU is to cut institutional ties.
Yet, however awkward their recent past, there are at least three reasons why both sides are better off cooperating.
The first is that the sustainability of their trade agreement rests on it. The presumption behind the deal is that it will be a “living agreement,” one that can adapt to changing realities through intricate governance processes and an institutional architecture made up of over 20 committees. Importantly, these structures are also there to help prevent and resolve disputes: if disagreements arise, they will be addressed in technical committees by officials before they can escalate into political conflicts and, potentially, legal disputes.
The second is that there are areas of international policy where the two sides have shared interests and face shared threats. From foreign policy and external security to the fight against climate change, Britain and the EU need each other to be credible international actors. The Biden administration will, without any doubt, exert pressure on them to act sensibly.
The third, and perhaps most important, is that the Northern Ireland Protocol depends on effective cooperation. The first few weeks have starkly exposed the complexity of the new arrangement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the UK now requesting an extension of the grace periods for specific checks to ease ongoing tensions. Boris Johnson has threatened to “do all we need to do” to unpick the border down the Irish Sea—including introducing more law-breaking legislation or triggering the same safeguard procedure whose use by the EU the government described as a “grave error.”
It is inflammatory language like this which stokes the fire. Some calm and perspective are necessary. Much of the friction is a direct result of what was negotiated. But the practical implementation of the protocol can allow for flexibility in monitoring and enforcing the rules on the ground—if the two sides can trust each other. Progress will depend on how well British and EU officials work together in and around Northern Irish ports; how well political leaders get on at the high-level committees; and how well British diplomats can work with their counterparts in EU institutions when Brussels tells Northern Ireland to adopt a hefty body of new EU rules. Take away that trust and the default of the legalistic structure of the EU is to be strict and inflexible.
Absolute trust is too much to ask, but reasonableness is not. If they want their relationship to work at all, both Britain and the EU must at least try to be good neighbours. New institutions, like the Partnership Council, a joint body governing the future relationship, can help encourage dialogue. But institutions are only as good as the individuals within them and the practices that sustain them. Direction given to those institutions must, ultimately, come from political leaders.
As tempting as it may be for political leaders on both sides to score a short-term tactical point, this is the moment that will define the spirit of the new relationship. By acting carelessly, they will only harm their own interests.
Editor's note: This article was originally published by Prospect on 4 February 2021.