Faced with American disengagement from Europe and an increasingly powerful China, the UK and the EU should overcome post-Brexit divisions and focus on shared interests.
This summer has provided ample demonstration of the difficulties of the relationship between the UK and the EU.
The constant rumbling of discontent over the Northern Ireland Protocol has been accompanied by periodic British threats to walk away from it. Last week’s State of the European Union address by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen neglected to mention the UK at all. And this week’s cancellation of talks on security cooperation with France comes hot on the heels of the AUKUS deal that tightens the links between the UK, US and Australia.
In short, there’s little sign on either side of the Channel that there is much appetite for trying to make the relationship work any better than its current semi-comatose state.
The reasons are very different, but the effect is much the same.
For the British, the profound allergy to engaging in any activity that is labelling ‘cooperation with the EU’ – even when there is broad and clear domestic support for it – means that even the legal commitments entered into in the Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade & Cooperation Agreement are treated as traps to be evaded rather than opportunities to be seized.
Yes, the hot rhetoric from London hasn’t turned into substantive action – the Protocol remains in effect, the big reviews of inherited EU rules has been pushed into the future – but the current government absolutely refuses to be positioned as working with Europeans on anything that might appear to be joint activity.
For the EU – both in Brussels and in national capitals – there is a mix of weariness at the constant negative noises from the UK, especially since these so often have no connection to facts on the ground or even logic, and a confidence that the British had no realistic alternative to the system constructed by the two Agreements.
Certainly, the British might not like the Protocol (for example), but the long negotiations after the 2016 referendum found it to be the least disagreeable option for the two sides, and a legally-binding treaty is a legally-binding treaty. So probably all that noise is just for show and eventually London will come around.
If nothing else, the EU has plenty of other major challenges on its agenda – from the rule of law in several member states to post-Covid reconstruction – where it can and must force things along. In the context of the EU’s wider neighbourhood, the UK might be truculent, but at least it’s not a source of uncontrolled migration or a militarily aggressive threat.
However, as much as both sides find themselves with minimal interest to make things work better, the summer has also underlined that there are bigger themes to be considered.
The major takeaway from the AUKUS deal was not the scale of France’s disgust at losing a major contract to build submarines but rather that this was another instance of the US playing fast and loose with its allies.
Exhibit A in this was the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan; run to an arbitrary deadline, with almost no warning to the many European partners involved and with little more effort to make up the lost goodwill.
Biden is not Trump, but that is precisely why it hurt as much as it did, for both the EU and the UK: the US appears to be on a longer-term turn towards prioritising its own interests over the maintenance of the international system that it helped create and sustain since the Second World War.
Indeed, Afghanistan underlined that for most aspects of global positioning and of security, the UK has at least as much in common with its neighbours in the EU as it does with its American cousins. The progressive disengagement of the latter from Europe that has been the leitmotif of the past two decades should raise questions about how to react.
More broadly, the shift of global power towards China will mean that the medium-term outlook is one in which instability in international cooperation and organisations is likely to increase and where the internal pressures to become less liberal and more protectionist will grow too.
The uncertainty of the world order is rightly noted by all sides, but less remarked is that national responses can be strengthened by building on international links. That doesn’t have to mean something like the EU, but it does require governments to acknowledge common cause where they find it.
Which brings us back to the EU-UK relationship.
Working together – on security, on climate change, on energy, on health – doesn’t have to mean supplication. By recognising that everyone brings something to the table and that cooperation can achieve more than the sum of the parts, it is not too difficult to discern an agenda that would serve the needs of both sides.
That wouldn’t have to mean compromising on the interests that each find essential, but it will take a determined effort by all to look past the problems of recent years. Central to that will be focusing on what they share rather than what divides them.
Simon Usherwood is Professor of Politics & International Studies at the Open University, and Chair of the University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES).