UK is getting right about Europe – POLITICO

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Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO.

After six years of chaos and recriminations since Britain voted to leave the EU, there are signs that the country is showing an unexpected burst of common sense in its approach to the bloc.

In his first weeks in office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – himself a Brexiteer – has sent clear signals that he wants a more constructive relationship with Brussels and Paris and avoid a trade war with Britain’s biggest economic partner.

Gone is the nationalist bombast of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the sheer havoc wrought by his successor Liz Truss, who crashed the economy in pursuit of a Brexit dividend. Instead, they have both given way to a sudden burst of pragmatism as Sunak seeks practical solutions to gnawing problems.

This change in outlook may be due in part to the recognition that Europe needs to stand united in the face of a threat to its collective security from Russian President Vladimir Putin – although that had not stopped Johnson from bragging about how the supposed been freed to leave the EU. Britain to support Ukraine more than France or Germany.

It may also be due to the serious economic problems Britain is in after the collapse of Truss’s short-lived experiment for a deregulated, low-tax Singapore-on-the-Thames. Or perhaps German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s tough line on any EU deal with Britain has had a sobering effect. Like maybe changed in the British publicwho now believe leaving the bloc was a mistake by a margin of 56 percent to 32 percent.

Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome start.

In just three weeks, Sunak has signed an EU defense initiative to make it easier to move armed forces around the continent, he has acted to improve Britain’s relationship with Ireland and he has created political space for a possible compromise on the vexed issue of trade with Northern Ireland, which has muddled relations with Brussels since Britain’s exit from the EU.

At their first meeting, Sunak told US President Joe Biden that he wants to have a negotiated solution on the Northern Ireland Protocol in place by April next year – the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. So sustained pressure from Washington is also starting to pay off.

The prime minister has also tried to thaw frosty relations with France and has struck a deal with Paris to crack 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 with a focus on strengthening defense cooperation.

To be fair, Truss had already taken a symbolic first step towards reconciliation after saying “the jury is still out” on whether Macron was a friend or foe of Britain by agreeing to attend the first meeting of the European Political Community last month. The geopolitical grouping was conceived by Macron to bring the entire European family together – except for Russia and Belarus.

What’s more, the stream of Europe-bashing rhetoric from Conservative ministers has all but dried up – at least for now. Suddenly cozying up to the neighbors is back in fashion, if only to ensure they don’t put the lights out on Britain by cutting energy exports when they supply become tight this winter.

The tone of contrition adopted by Northern Ireland Secretary Steve Baker, once the staunchest of Brexit hardliners, was one of the most striking signals of this new humility. “I recognize that in my own determination and fight to get Britain out of the EU, I caused a lot of trouble 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 downgrading a bill by ousted Brexit ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg to review, reform or automatically scrap around 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 appears receptive to pleas from business to give the review much more time and avoid a legislative vacuum.

A flurry of EU rules would inevitably provoke fresh trade tensions with Brussels – and at a time when the Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain’s independent fiscal watchdog, just confirmed the growth-inhibiting damage caused by Brexit.

This is not the end of Britain’s traumatic break with the bloc. How nerve-wracking the issue remains was highlighted when Sunak earlier this week had to deny reports that senior government figures were considering a Swiss-style relationships with the EU to ensure frictionless trade. He promised that there would be no adaptation to EU rules on his watch.

To paraphrase Churchill, it may not even be the beginning of the end. But it might be the end of the beginning.

Puncturing the illusion of a deregulated fiscal paradise fueled by borrowing with no new revenue has had a sobering effect on Britain – giving Sunak a political window to start mending EU ties. After all, the Conservative Party can’t afford to defend another Prime Minister after Theresa May, Johnson and Truss, can they?

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 force through any compromise with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

As the province remains part of the EU’s single market under the Withdrawal Treaty, any such deal is bound to involve some customs controls in Northern Ireland on goods arriving from the UK – even if scaled back 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 terrible for 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.

To could be Sunak’s legacy.

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