If done right, Britain’s split from the EU will help its friends and neighbours on the continent.
There are two lessons we have learned over the last five years of dealing with the Brexit process: shame and blame help no one.
The United Kingdom started its departure from the EU almost apologetic at the problems we had caused. It wasn’t what others had chosen and it was down to us, and us almost alone, to fix them. That didn’t work for anyone. We were blamed by Brussels and many of the member states for the problems and found our negotiations tramlined towards an end state that worked for nobody.
Since then, we’ve turned the tables. Instead of being our fault, it was theirs. Who “they” are has shifted but fundamentally the challenge remained: it was for us to decide and them to fix. That’s not sustainable either. Both misunderstand what we all need from a partnership and how to rebuild our relationships.
In Paris, Berlin and other members’ capitals a similar perspective has shaped unhelpful demands and approaches. Things have changed. Even Michel Barnier has campaigned – albeit unsuccessfully - for the French presidency on lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a speech by his British counterpart, Lord Frost, showing a rethink in national debates from the centralising impulses of recent years.
We’re seeing today that the time for a reset on both sides has arrived. We need each other. The world - at home and abroad - has changed, and we can no longer afford the luxury of a family squabble.
Over the past five years, politics across the UK and the European Union has moved a fair way from when we started the separation in 2016. In the UK, we have the second post-referendum leadership and this one, despite recent difficulties, has a commanding majority in Parliament. In the EU, the Merkel era is over, Barnier is no longer even a candidate in the French elections and the Irish government looks more vulnerable to its own populist flank.
The EU and UK need each other. The world - at home and abroad - has changed, and we can no longer afford the luxury of a family squabble.
In the east, Hungary and Poland have engaged in disputes with the Commission that challenge the foundational texts of the community. In the south, the stronger Greek and Italian administrations have replaced the chaotic past with a more predictable future.
And all of this comes as Covid has reasserted areas of national capability within member states. This virus showed that the European ideal doesn’t work in every domain. Health, despite early attempts to change it, demonstrated the limits of cohesion in the face of a crisis as national needs trumped communal solidarity. Masks stopped crossing the borders and capitals competed for supplies of equipment.
Perhaps the biggest changes for the European talks are outside influences. We have seen how the pressure of a resurgent Russia and Belarus’s criminal support for people trafficking has rebalanced the importance NATO, and Europe’s military capabilities, alongside the economic partnership of the EU.
Wolf warriors in Chinese embassies have sharpened their teeth, uniting many on the continent and warning all. Czech, Lithuanian and many other smaller states’ courageous stands against Beijing’s pressure has contrasted with others’ accommodation with the economic titan. That’s reshaping EU foreign policy cohesion.
Even Washington’s approach has changed. In the US, President Biden’s team has a clear commitment to the EU, at the same time as a reassertion of the UK alliance through partnerships like the Australian, British and US AUKUS treaty.
All this means 2022 is a chance to think again about the way Britain and our European partners cooperate. Building off the past, we can see an offer that works for all.
Starting with what Britain brings to the party, defence is most obvious. We are France’s most important defence partner and Germany’s key intelligence ally. But that’s only the start. Around the Baltic Sea, allies like Estonia, Poland, Denmark and the Netherlands have served in British brigades and naval formations for generations and they are increasingly aware that the current antipathy helps no one but Moscow.
Economically too, the UK is not just a rival now - it remains a partner and could be a better one. There isn’t a realistic likelihood of another EU state leaving the club so those who still suffer from the anxiety of example can calm down. Brexit is really only British - there is no one else on the same path.
That means from an EU perspective the chance of watching these islands and seeing what we do is a huge opportunity. Britain will have to be radical and quick. The vaccine programme is one example that could have shown a lead but there will be more besides. That could allow EU members to learn the lessons of our policy experiments without all the costs we will have to face.
Over the next decade, if Britain gets this right, we will transform our economy by investing in the technologies that will get us away from dependence on untrustworthy partners. From hydrogen to batteries, we need to step up in energy, and the next stage must include everything from education to manufacturing.
Our decision to give up the European hinterland means we have to make these moves fast. But with these new experiments we won’t just be serving ourselves. If we remember that we’re friends, not just neighbours, the UK can lead a new way for all.
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