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Foreign Policy

Johnson’s exit won’t change Brexit

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column. 

PARIS — Europeans may be rejoicing at the downfall of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but there’s scant reason to believe that relations between London and Brussels will improve once their nemesis leaves Downing Street — except perhaps in tone. 

Borexit won’t alter the remorseless logic of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Relations will remain distant, all too often adversarial, and frequently fraught due to the political dynamics in Westminster and Belfast. 

Long-term alienation is Johnson’s enduring legacy. 

Despite opinion polls showing a plurality of British voters do recognize that Brexit has made them worse off, the sad fact is there’s no political upside for either of the country’s two major parties in advocating for closer ties with Brussels.  

The ruling Conservatives are now overwhelmingly anti-EU. Even the surviving Tory ministers who voted Remain have bowed to the consensus. The issue also bitterly split the opposition Labour party, costing it working class votes in traditional northern strongholds, which is why its leader, Keir Starmer, pledged last week that a Labour government wouldn’t seek to rejoin the EU, or its single market or customs union, if he wins the next general election, due by 2024. 

British Labour Party opposition leader Keir Starmer and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson | Pool photo by Toby Melville/Getty Images

Neither major party can afford to tell voters that they were wrong, or hoodwinked, and that leaving the bloc was a costly mistake. Only the Liberal Democrats, who stand in third place, and the Scottish National Party, which governs in Scotland, still advocate reversing Brexit. 

For better or worse, Johnson got Brexit done. Except for a hard core of unreconciled Remain activists, voters are thoroughly fed up with the issue and simply want to move on.  

On that note, it’s important to remember that Johnson was forced to resign because his serial dishonesty on squalid domestic scandals and his chaotic conduct of government were turning the one-time vote winner into an electoral liability. He wasn’t dumped for his biggest lie — the claim that quitting the EU would make Britons better off. Instead, his hard Brexit has damaged the economy, shrunk trade, reduced inward investment and diminished the U.K.’s international influence. 

Now, the many candidates hoping to succeed Johnson are vying to strike a tougher pose than the other in defying the Euro-monster, and backing legislation to unilaterally unpick the protocol on trade relations between the EU and Northern Ireland, which Johnson signed, then reneged on. They will all claim to be best placed to “unleash the benefits of Brexit.” 

Whatever their private thoughts, however, the contenders’ hands are tied, as the hardline anti-EU European Research Group holds the swing vote in the Conservative parliamentary party, and grassroots Tory members, who will select the next leader once MPs have narrowed the field of candidates to two, are far more anti-European than the wider electorate. 

Moreover, the Democratic Unionist party, which represents the hardline Protestant unionist minority in Northern Ireland, will continue to paralyze the province’s power-sharing government, and wield disproportionate influence over the Conservatives in Westminster.  

British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and First Minister, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

In 2020, when Johnson negotiated a bare-bones Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, he rebuffed all proposals for institutional cooperation in foreign, security and defense policy, agreeing only to keep essential police and judicial collaboration going.  

Downing Street was convinced it could handle European security issues through NATO, pursue “E3” cooperation with Germany and France — of which there has been strikingly little — and weave a web of privileged military and political relationships with small partner groups in Central Europe and the Nordic and Baltic countries, all while ignoring the EU.  

But that only gets you so far. The bloc remains the key locus for political, economic, climate and energy policy in Europe — and Britain no longer has a voice. 

Having excluded itself from Europe’s central table, Johnson’s “Global Britain” has sought new commercial and political relationships around the world, while turning its back on its biggest trade partner and nearest neighbor. And it’s unclear whether this approach has secured significantly better ties or economic benefits with the United States, Japan, India, Australia or Canada. 

Some in Brussels and London now hope relations could at least become more constructive and less toxic once Johnson, who began his populist career as an EU-bashing journalist, has gone. Trust is at absolute rock bottom in Paris, Berlin, Rome and Brussels, and things can only get better, the argument goes. 

Don’t bank on it. The temptation to play to the gallery and the tabloids against the EU may prove as irresistible to any Tory successor as it did to Johnson. 

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – DECEMBER 09: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen | Pool photo by Aaron Chown/Getty Images

In the days after Russia invaded Ukraine, there had been timid signs that London and Brussels were developing pragmatic ways to coordinate policy on sanctions, the expulsions of Russian diplomats and political responses to the war. Ad hoc working groups of senior civil servants and diplomats started meeting, and U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss spoke regularly to EU Foreign Policy High Representative Josep Borrell.  

Alas, even those promising stirrings have led nowhere. Instead, Johnson and his ministers seized every opportunity to hector, upstage and embarrass the EU, whether on oil and gas sanctions or on arms deliveries to Kyiv.  

Johnson’s government could never seem to decide what the U.K. should be after casting off from Europe — a low-tax, small-state Singapore-on-the-Thames, or a big-spending “one nation” investing in massive infrastructure projects and public services to “level up” poorer areas.  

Typically, Johnson thought he could do both — have his cake and eat it, as he famously claimed. 

That dilemma may or may not be clarified in the Conservative leadership campaign, which has already started as a contest of who would cut taxes more. The only certainty, however, is that no one will argue in favor of turning toward closer economic integration with the EU. 

That ship has long sailed.

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