Lionel Laurent

Brexit Threats in Wartime Are Doubly Wrong

Of the many diplomatic spats and snubs that summarize the dismal relations between the UK and its historic continental frenemy of France, one phrase sticks in the mind: “Prenez un grip, and donnez-moi un break.”

The patronizing put-down by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, delivered in purposely poor franglais, was aimed squarely at a furious Emmanuel Macron after the September announcement of a new security partnership between the Brits, the US, and Australia known as AUKUS that cut out France, which in the process also lost a deal to sell a dozen submarines to Canberra.

It was a low point among many, with Brexit having unleashed pent-up animosity over trade, finance, fishing and migrant crossings between two medium-sized neighbors that nonetheless cooperate in areas including defense. “We are like brothers who are always fighting,” says Alexandre Holroyd, a lawmaker in Macron’s party who is gloomy on the prospect of reconciliation anytime soon.

A make-or-break moment now looms as the UK weighs whether to scrap the terms of EU trade it signed up for in Northern Ireland. It’s just the latest threat by Johnson’s government to dismantle the very customs and tariff system it once held up as the best way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, something both sides have promised not to reinstate by instead putting the frontier in the Irish Sea.

It’s time for Paris and other EU capitals to pull Johnson back from the brink — while also dangling the prospect of better relations.

The short-term catalyst here is undeniably serious: Political paralysis in Northern Ireland as Unionists opposed to post-Brexit trade terms refuse to join the region’s power-sharing assembly.

But the UK must understand that the unilateral scrapping would do little but further unite the EU. While it’s hardly convincing to hear officials in Brussels say they won’t give in to blackmail — the last time this happened, the EU came up with a flurry of concessions to soothe London — Johnson’s government consistently underestimates continental support for the single market. Ceding more ground to UK demands would raise questions from other partners on EU credibility, says Barry Andrews, an Irish member of the European Parliament.

The British calculation seems to be that the Ukraine war has changed the game, and that it’s built up enough goodwill through its support for Kyiv and commitments to defend the EU’s Eastern flank to push its own demands. But the effect would be the reverse. While the UK and EU have become more aligned in piling up sanctions against Russia, tearing up a treaty signed by both sides would sour the relationship. Trust in Johnson, already thin as a crepe, would vanish.

Triggering tariffs and non-tariff barriers would bring additional Brexit-related harm to a UK economy that the International Monetary Fund forecasts will have the lowest growth and highest inflation in the G7. It would also be bad for Northern Ireland, whose economy has outperformed the UK average, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

That’s the stick. But Macron can also dangle a carrot. He has already proposed a new, less formal grouping of like-minded countries beyond the EU, including aspiring member states like Ukraine and the only former one, Britain. Proof that Paris and its partners are preparing for a post-Ukraine world can also be seen in trade, with one EU official saying trade talks with Australia — suspended after the AUKUS drama — could be concluded by end-2022 or 2023.

Professor Federico Fabbrini of Dublin City University’s Brexit Institute says that Macron’s initiative is one of several signs the UK relationship, while not a “wonderful marriage,” could evolve. The UK’s Brexit portfolio has been folded into the Foreign Office, he notes, in theory making it more strategically tied to foreign policy.

The great unknown, as always, is UK domestic politics. Brexit reshaped the landscape in 2016 and is still a driving factor. The EU is a useful scapegoat, given Brexit has brought costs to the UK without the promised benefits, such as a US trade deal or financial-sector deregulation. It’s easier to blame Brussels than to explain the costs to voters. Johnson famously said implementing the new terms would only happen “over my dead body.”

Yet delivering on crude threats won’t help. It would likely make a US trade deal more distant for the UK and drive a deeper wedge between Western allies during wartime. Defense ties have been insulated from trade tensions so far, MEP Sean Kelly tells me, but it’s hard to see how that could continue.

A lot has changed since Johnson first suggested Macron get a grip and focus on their common threats in a more menacing world. It’s time he suivez his own advice.