TReaching out to the European Union (EU) has rarely been a winning strategy for British prime ministers, who have often played on and abused their constituents’ supposed Europhobia. By staging the conclusion of an agreement with Brussels on Monday February 27, Rishi Sunak turns a page in the chaotic history of Brexit and seems to break with the strategy of Boris Johnson, whose political project seemed to have been reduced to a endless confrontation with the twenty-seven neighbors of the United Kingdom.
The content of the “deal” that Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, came to celebrate in person with Mr. Sunak, after a tea party in Windsor with King Charles III, head of state in title, is centered on Northern Ireland. It aims to resolve the dispute between London and Brussels arising from the application, in this province of the United Kingdom, of the Brexit treaty signed at the end of 2019 by Mr. Johnson.
In order to prevent the return of a border between the two parts of Ireland, this text kept Northern Ireland in the single European market for goods. As a result, goods transiting through the Irish Sea are subject to customs controls which impede trade and make the Unionist extremists of Northern Ireland howl. The latter see any EU interference as a threat to their membership in the UK.
The agreement announced Monday should make it possible to facilitate the movement of goods by exempting from control those whose final destination is Northern Ireland, and not the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. The text also provides that the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Assembly may oppose changes to European rules affecting the province.
Boris Johnson in ambush
But the issue of the “deal” goes far beyond the Irish framework. It represents for Rishi Sunak a bold bet: to get out of the falling out with the EU at a time when a majority of Britons have become aware of the harmful consequences of Brexit and say they regret the result of the vote in the 2016 referendum.
Anxious to mitigate the economic damage – exports at half mast – the British Prime Minister is also seeking to bring his country out of a certain isolation. It is a question of warming up his relations with the United States of Joe Biden, worried about the possible return of tensions in Ireland, the country of origin of his ancestors, as the 25e anniversary of the agreement that ended three decades of bloody conflict.
This reciprocal desire of London and the Twenty-Seven to normalize their relations, after a stormy divorce, deserves to be welcomed. The return of war to European soil and geopolitical and climatic threats require that the British and European members of the Union speak and act with one voice, diplomatically, energetically and militarily. On both sides of the Channel, the common interest is to get out of the post-Brexit guerrilla warfare to achieve a peaceful adult relationship.
For Rishi Sunak, the game is not won. He has yet to ‘sell’ the deal to Northern Irish extremists and Brexit ultras from his own party, the Conservative Party, as Boris Johnson remains in ambush. But that a supporter of Brexit, like the current Prime Minister, seeks to break with an anti-European dogmatism which weakens his country, to seek pragmatic solutions, is a good omen. Perhaps the first sign of a return to good neighborly relations imposed both by geography and the state of the world.