Boris Johnson cannot just wish away European tensions
Wishing will make it so, just keep on wishing and care will go”. Vera Lynn’s uplifting lyrics may have made her the “forces’ sweetheart” but they rarely feature in diplomatic manuals. And yet this song seems uncomfortably close to the UK’s apparent desire for better relations with the EU, and France in particular.
The last month offered up signs that at least some in Downing Street can see the advantages of a reset. Lord Frost, the chief Brexit negotiator, has drawn back at least temporarily from threats to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol. Media allies have been briefed on the desire for a new “entente cordiale” with France. The growing pressure to halt uncontrolled Channel crossings is the clearest example of how often domestic problems require European assistance.
But this reset is an end for which few are prepared to will the means. Boris Johnson wants better relations but sees few domestic benefits to a softer line — especially with his party’s troublesome right flank. John Bew, his foreign policy adviser, is making the case but, in the words of one seasoned observer, “he is cutting a pretty lonely figure”.
One European diplomat says the British approach is “always tactical rather than strategic”. Progress is swiftly followed by reverses, most recently following the deaths of 27 migrants in the Channel. The tweeting of a provocative letter to Emmanuel Macron led to the UK being disinvited from a summit on the issue. One former diplomat noted: “The French are world champion flouncers but they were bound to react badly to that letter and no one seems to have thought about that. It was done for domestic consumption.”
There is little evidence of meaningful bridge-building. “I’ve not had any sense of a real desire to re-engage,” says a Foreign Office insider. Foreign secretary Liz Truss’ primary focus is the US and the Indo-Pacific region. Where her interests are drawn towards the EU she has focused most heavily on eastern European nations, notably those defying EU rules. And the tone of EU relations is set by Lord Frost. Elsewhere in cabinet, the chancellor Rishi Sunak exasperates otherwise-admiring officials with his lack of interest in engaging with EU counterparts. Home secretary Priti Patel is cordial in private but her public tone alienates the allies she seeks.
Defence is cited as a foundation for a reset, especially with France. But the UK’s integrated foreign policy review barely bothered itself with the issue of European security and Britain still seeks to bypass EU structures. Hopes for broader rapprochement were severely undermined by the Aukus deal. While the White House rushed to salve wounds, Johnson punched the bruise telling Macron to “prenez un grip”. Defence co-operation continues, notably on nuclear testing, but rather than easing tensions, it is in spite of them.
Nor does the picture look rosier with other capitals. The coalition agreement for the new German government stresses the need for a common EU position in dealing with the UK and “full compliance” with existing agreements. Others note waning patience among formerly supportive leaders such as Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. Meanwhile Europe is moving on. Building ties with Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, is the priority for most EU states.
Brexit, of course, lies at the root of the problems. The UK is now seen by European leaders as an unreliable ally, ripping up agreements within months of signing them. Macron may be the most outspoken in berating Johnson as untrustworthy and unserious, but he is not out of step with other EU leaders.
The new default is a more tense and transactional relationship. British ministers may lament the French desire to show that Brexit has not been a success and to weaken the City of London but this should have been priced in, if not from the start then at least once the UK prioritised fish over financial services.
A more fundamental question is whether this government is capable of securing the thaw it purportedly seeks. Some ex-diplomats are doubtful. “I don’t believe this can be fixed under this prime minister. The relationship with France is so broken,” says one.
There are steps which could help. The first would be to end the threats to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol and accept the proposed European Commission reforms on the implementation of customs checks. This will disappoint hardline Unionists but they are going to be disappointed sooner or later.
The second step would be listen to the mandarins and remember that the essence of diplomacy is persuading others to do things you want — it therefore demands more consideration of their concerns and temperament. The UK needs to stop viewing European relations as part of an endless zero-sum game of continuing Brexit negotiations.
Third, it could entertain the French suggestion of UK asylum processing centres in France though this might also mean accepting more migrants.
Yet even listing these steps highlights the problem. The character of the prime minister and his government, with its taste for brinkmanship, mistrust of diplomats and campaigning instinct to rile up its base, militate against the pragmatism required for a reset.
Tensions can ease but a true thaw demands a strategic decision from an endlessly tactical government. That some wish for better relations is a start. But wishing it is some way short of willing it.