Rishi Sunak needs to reset Britain’s approach to Europe

Rishi Sunak won the race to become Britain’s new prime minister by promising to fix his predecessor’s fiscal errors and unify his party. Oddly, he wasn’t asked to say much about Brexit — which has hobbled the country for the past six years and remains the government’s biggest challenge. Addressing it will make cleaning up the budgetary mess look easy.

Sunak got an abrupt reminder of the trouble ahead after less than a week in office, when a quarrel over trade rules between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland flared anew. When the UK left the European Union, it was understood that an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was essential to preserving the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But this meant Brexit would require an economic border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.


Desperate to “get Brexit done,” Britain’s government agreed to a so-called protocol making that stipulation in 2020 and set the issue aside. In protest at the new border, the North’s Democratic Unionist Party shut down the region’s power-sharing assembly in May. The Tories then moved legislation in Westminster to unilaterally cancel the protocol they’d previously agreed to. A trade war between the UK and the EU became a distinct possibility.

It still is. A deadline for restoring the Belfast assembly has passed, triggering new elections. By themselves, to be sure, these will solve nothing: Until the quarrel over the protocol is resolved, the ground is laid for yet more political turmoil and economic uncertainty. Adding to that prospect is a bill moving through Britain’s Parliament to excise every piece of EU-derived legislation by the end of next year — a reckless, arbitrary target and a formula for bureaucratic chaos.

Sunak supported Brexit, and he previously said he’d move even faster to purge the EU from the statute book. If he now intends to emphasize pragmatism and managerial competence, a wholesale reset of UK-EU relations would be a great place to start.

The difficulties caused by the protocol are real: Checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea are a costly nuisance. But these problems can be largely resolved through good-faith negotiation, information-sharing and technical accommodations. Talks during the brief term of Liz Truss, Sunak’s predecessor, reportedly made progress. Up to that point, Britain’s mistake was to lose patience with the EU’s devotion to process and pivot to barking commands. That was delusional. The UK negotiates with the EU from a position of weakness. Sunak needs to understand this, even if he can’t afford to admit it.

Flexibility on supposedly immovable issues of principle will be necessary — not just on customs procedures but also on matters such as the standing of the European Court in resolving disputes. For its part, the EU can afford to bend on points of contention so long as the UK emphasizes mutual interest, not “We win, you lose.” In the same spirit, other post-Brexit frictions in UK-EU trade can be lessened. In due course, a closer trade partnership should be feasible.

For this to work, Sunak will have to distance himself from the Brexit hard-liners who’ve been intent on digging the UK into an ever-deeper hole. He’ll also have to disappoint (or bribe) the DUP extremists who deplore compromise of any kind. It helps that opinion in Northern Ireland seems to be shifting against the DUP, and that Sunak’s fellow Tories in Westminster, contemplating their own electoral oblivion, currently prefer unity over factionalism. Geopolitics pushes the same way: Russia’s war on Ukraine underlines the need for Britain and the EU to be close friends and allies, not spiteful rivals. If Sunak wants his leadership to make a difference, this is how — and it wouldn’t be a moment too soon.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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