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20 July 2022

Johnson won’t be missed in the EU – can his successor improve relations?

The Tory leadership candidate’s promises to make a success of Brexit leave plenty of opportunity for friction.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – There is not much love lost for Boris Johnson in Brussels. He sparred with the European institutions from the earliest days of his career. His sensationalist stories for the Daily Telegraph as a young journalist in Brussels about Europe’s plans to abolish prawn cocktail crisps and blow up the asbestos-ridden Berlaymont building are credited with laying the groundwork for Britain’s exit from the EU.

Johnson went on to lead the victorious Brexit campaign, causing resentment among the remaining 27 EU member states who feared the threat to the integrity of the union. Once Johnson became Prime Minister, his constant spats with the EU and its individual states, such as over the status of Northern Ireland and migrant boats crossing the Channel from France, won him few friends on continental Europe.

Johnson, more than any other individual, is seen as responsible for and emblematic of what Europe views as the rot that has taken hold in British politics. “I will not miss him,” the French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said.

[See also: Even the Brexiteers are in despair over Brexit]

The one thing that gets Johnson credit is the UK’s support for Ukraine, which central and eastern European governments view as the most consistent and significant of all the major European powers. All of Johnson’s potential successors have pledged to continue to support Kyiv, however, which reassures Europe that little will change on that front once Johnson leaves Downing Street.

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Hopes for a reset in Britain’s relations with the EU are low. For all the Conservative leadership candidates’ talk of change and a clean start, they are all committed to many of Johnson’s most controversial policies, if not his style. From deportations of migrants to Rwanda to a commitment to unilaterally tearing up the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement, the remaining candidates to replace Johnson – all of whom served in his government – have pledged to continue on his path in ways that are likely to antagonise the EU.

When the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, unveiled a bill to overwrite the Northern Ireland protocol, which is meant to avoid a hard Irish border by putting checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain instead, even the usually reserved Germans could not contain their anger. “London is unilaterally breaking agreements,” Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said. “And it is doing so for predictable motives of its own.”

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In addition, all candidates are committed to proving that Brexit was the right decision. That will increase the chances for conflict with the EU, in particular if the UK seeks regulatory divergence in the search for economic benefits of leaving.

Yet hopes that Johnson’s resignation might improve things linger. “We can’t do without Britain,” reads the headline of an editorial in the centre-left German magazine Der Spiegel, which expresses a desire that Johnson’s successor will seek closer ties to Europe. “I hope that a change of prime minister will allow us to hope for a new start in Franco-British relations,” said Catherine Colonna, the French foreign minister and a former ambassador to the UK. Hope springs eternal.

[See also: John Gray: The hollowness of Boris Johnson]

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