The UK and EU are heading for bad-tempered rivalry, unless we can avert it

For all the ‘sovereignty’ it has gained, post-Brexit Britain will be trapped in a future of permanent negotiation

Banksy does Brexit (detail)
Image by dullhunk

After Brexit, Britain and the European Union face the Gore Vidal trap. As the waspish American writer once said: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” There is now a powerful political logic pushing both sides to make the relative failure of the other the measure of their own success.

We have seen it already over covid-19 vaccinations, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasting that Britain has done more than all the rest of Europe together. Gavin Williamson, Britain’s education secretary, took it to a juvenile extreme, claiming this is because “we’re a much better country than every single one of them”. What we might call “Vidalism” is baked into the Brexiteers’ project. After all, the whole point of the exercise is supposed to be that Britain will be “better off out”.

This logic is less central for the EU side, not least because it has so much else on its plate. But it is still definitely there, especially in countries where strong Eurosceptic politicians (such as Marine Le Pen) might otherwise highlight the success of a “liberated” Britain. The logic can be seen clearly on the Twitter feed of France’s talented Europe minister, Clément Beaune. On the night of Britain’s final departure last month, for example, Beaune tweeted a comment he made to the LCI news channel. Britain is punishing itself by Brexit, he rightly observed, but “it was also necessary to show the price to be paid for leaving”.

But, you may object, surely the negotiations are over. We have a deal. Brexit is done. Well, think again. For years ahead, Britain will be in a state of permanent negotiation with the EU. The Johnson government said the choice came down to being “Australia or Canada” but, in fact, we will be more like Switzerland, which endures endless rounds of nitpicky negotiations with the EU, punctuated by fits of retribution from Brussels. To be sure, Britain will be a Greater Switzerland with rockets, but the dilemma is fundamentally the same.

The Johnson government has negotiated an excellent deal on trade in goods – excellent for the EU, that is. German cars can continue to flow into Britain, along with other manufactured goods, in which the EU has a trade surplus with the UK. For the 80 per cent of the British economy that is services, almost everything still remains to be agreed. That includes financial services, which make up close to 10 per cent of British exports. As Beaune gleefully tweeted, some €6bn (£5.3bn) worth of European trades left the London Stock Exchange for markets inside the EU on the first day of trading this year. Le Figaro ironically called this a “Big Bang”. (Now what is the French for schadenfreude?)

An excellent report written by trade expert David Henig for the advocacy group Best for Britain argues that the Johnson deal is only “a framework for future cooperation”. He goes on to identify a long list of areas where it would be in Britain’s longer-term economic interest to secure further agreements. Many of these, such as a finding of “equivalence” for Britain’s financial services, are in the unilateral gift of the EU – and some can be withdrawn at will, as the Swiss have found out. The asymmetry of power between the two sides is now more acute than ever.

And all for what? If “sovereignty” means a state’s formal legal authority to make its own laws, adjudicated by its own courts, then the UK has gained some more sovereignty. If “sovereignty” means the effective power of a state to control its own destiny and advance its national interests, then the UK has lost sovereignty.

The point here is not to replay the old Brexit “in or out” debate. It is that, in this liminal swamp of permanent negotiation, there will be endless occasions for bad-tempered disagreement, competition, and conflict.

The question for all people of intelligence and goodwill on both sides of the Channel is, therefore, how to avoid falling into the Vidal trap. That doesn’t mean no competition. Competition is good for business. Indeed, historians have argued that the level of competition between various players is what historically made Europe rich and powerful, by contrast with more monolithic polities such as China. The trick is to find the right balance of competition and cooperation.

Anyone who has followed any internal EU negotiation knows that there is still plenty of rivalry between EU member states. But that rivalry is more like the contests in rugby union between what in Britain are called the “home nations”. The rugby players of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (still counted as a home nation for this purpose) beat the hell out of each other for 80 minutes. But at the end they shake hands and pat each other on the back, knowing full well that next week they will be playing on the same side, for the British and Irish Lions against the All Blacks or the Springboks. Similarly, the “home nations” of the EU know that next week they will be playing against Russia or China for the European team.

Here, there is a glimmer of hope. For when it comes to Russia, or China, or Iran, or the climate crisis, Britain and most continental European countries are on the same side. Brexit doesn’t change that. So, there is a larger strategic logic of cooperation that cuts against the political logic of jealous rivalry.

But this rational insight, shared even by Britain’s hard Brexiteer government, is not enough in itself to ensure a good cross-Channel relationship after Brexit. That requires trust, goodwill, clear communication, and frequent interaction. After nearly five years of miserable Brexit argy-bargy, trust and goodwill are in short supply.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister who is, next to Johnson, the UK’s leading “Mr Brexit”, says we now have a “special relationship” with the EU. At the moment, that is just waffle. To make it a reality would require establishing new channels of communication, to replace the thick web of daily interaction we lost on leaving the EU. I see some willingness in Downing Street to do this bilaterally, especially with Germany and France, but none so far to do it with the EU as such.

Looking at the online roster of British ministerial roles, all I find is a mention of “future relations with the EU” under Gove (who, in practice, seems to be the minister for everything), while the foreign secretary has “Europe” listed among his responsibilities. Under him, there is a junior minister “for European Neighbourhood and Americas”. If the government goes on like this, then its special relationship with the EU will be ripe for the biting quip I once heard former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt make about Britain’s vaunted special relationship with the US: “It’s so special that only one side knows it exists.”

After Brexit, Britain more than ever needs a European policy – and the EU needs a Britain policy.

This article first appeared in The Guardian.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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