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The Ugly Divorce Between Britain And Brussels Is Just Getting Started

The Ugly Divorce Between Britain And Brussels Is Just Getting Started

Britain and the European Union have also fallen out politically and diplomatically, with a speed and bitterness that has surprised even pessimists about the relationship. While these strains are less tangible to Britons than having to pay extra costs for imported coffee from Italy, they could have an equally corrosive long-term effect.


“These are not purely teething problems,” said Kim Darroch, who served as Britain’s permanent representative to the European Union and later as ambassador to Washington, citing the government’s all-purpose explanation for Brexit problems. “They are structural problems that arise from not being in the single market. This is what a ‘hard Brexit’ looks like.” Tensions have flared on matters large and small since a new trade agreement formalized Brexit on Jan. 1. The British refused to grant full diplomatic status to the European Union’s envoy to London. European leaders lashed out at shortages in the supply of a British-made coronavirus vaccine and briefly threatened to rip up the agreement governing trade with a post-Brexit Northern Ireland.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson replaced the minister responsible for dealing with Brussels, Michael Gove, an ambitious politician known for his emollient manner, with David Frost, a more rough-edged functionary who hammered out the trade agreement between Britain and the European Union. In a recent speech that sketched out his vision of a “Global Britain,” Johnson pledged to deepen trans-Atlantic ties and even build Britain’s presence in the Pacific. But he barely mentioned the European Union. When he did, it was to emphasize how much Britain would gain by severing ties with it.


“The U.K. really needs a special relationship, a deeply interlinked relationship, with the EU,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a research institute in London. “But this government has defined itself ideologically as not needing the EU for anything.” Some of these tensions are the inevitable result of what was, after all, an acrimonious divorce, 4 1/2 years in the making. The trade agreement was less a springboard for future cooperation than a bare-bones severance deal that left many issues, including the future of London’s mighty finance industry, to be thrashed out later.


As always with Brexit, much of the antagonism is being driven by domestic politics. Feelings have become raw in Europe because of the perception that Britain, which has rolled out vaccines much faster than the European Union, did so in part by hoarding doses from its homegrown manufacturers. President Emmanuel Macron of France questioned the efficacy of a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford in people older than 65. That nationalistic message may have played well with his political base, even if critics pointed out that the World Health Organization and the European Union had recommended the vaccine for all adults.


In Britain, some politicians have seized on the vaccine gap as vindication of the vote to leave. On a range of issues, it is clear that the fulfillment of Brexit has not soothed antagonism toward the EU, either in the government or among the hard-core band of Brexiteers in Johnson’s Conservative Party. On Thursday, these lawmakers, known as the European Research Group, called on the government to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol. That is the complex, hard-fought agreement with Brussels that allows Northern Ireland to preserve an open border with Ireland, an EU member, even after leaving Europe’s single market along with the other nations of the United Kingdom.


Under the terms of the deal, Britain has agreed to subject goods flowing into Northern Ireland to customs and health checks. Confusion over the new rules has interrupted some of that trade, leading to empty shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets and fears that the situation could get worse, as grace periods on some checks expire. The protocol has already come under fire from both sides: The European Union threatened to upend it during the dispute over vaccine supplies, while Johnson’s government warned last fall that it would abandon it if it was not able to come to terms with Brussels on a trade agreement.


The latest demands by the Brexiteer lawmakers may reflect a simple desire to stay in the limelight, having accomplished their defining goal of leaving Europe. But it also dramatizes the enduring appeal of euro-skepticism — a narrative of grievance that British politicians can deploy to deflect criticism for anything from trade hiccups to deeper economic problems.


For lawmakers and the government, bashing Brussels became all the more tempting after the European Commission, the EU executive arm, threatened to rip up one of the key provisions of the protocol last month. While it reversed itself after a few hours, the threat is now regarded as a self-inflicted wound of rare magnitude.


Source: The New York Times


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