Skip to main content

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

After Brexit, Britain and the European Union face the Gore Vidal trap. That waspish American writer said: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” There is now a powerful political logic pushing both sides to make the relative failure of the other the measure of their own success.

We have seen it already over COVID-19 vaccinations, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasting that Britain has done more than all the rest of Europe together. Gavin Williamson, Britain’s education minister, took it to a juvenile extreme, claiming this is because “we’re a much better country than every single one of them.” But Vidalism is baked into the Brexiters’ project. After all, the whole point of the exercise is supposed to be that Britain will be “better off out.”

The logic is less central to the EU side, not least because it has so much else on its plate. But it is still definitely there, especially in countries where strong Euroskeptic politicians (for example, Marine Le Pen) might otherwise highlight a “liberated” Britain’s success. The logic can be seen clearly in the Twitter thread of France’s talented Europe minister, Clément Beaune. On the night of Britain’s final departure last month, for example, Mr. Beaune tweeted a comment he made to the LCI news channel. Britain is punishing itself by Brexit, he (rightly) observed, but “it was also necessary to show the price to be paid for leaving.”

But, you may object, surely the negotiations are over. There is a deal. Brexit is done. Well, think again. For years ahead, Britain will be in a state of permanent negotiation with the EU. The Johnson government said the choice came down to being “Australia or Canada,” but in fact Britain will be more like Switzerland, which endures endless rounds of nitpicky negotiations with the EU, punctuated by fits of retribution from Brussels. To be sure, Britain will be a Greater Switzerland with rockets, but the dilemma is fundamentally the same.

The Johnson government has negotiated an excellent deal on trade in goods – excellent for the EU, that is. German cars can continue to flow into Britain, along with other manufactured goods, in which the EU has a trade surplus with Britain. For the 80 per cent of the British economy that is services, almost everything still remains to be agreed. That includes financial services, which make up close to 10 per cent of British exports. As Mr. Beaune gleefully tweeted, some €6-billion ($9.3-billion) worth of European trades left the London stock exchange for markets inside the EU on the first day of trading this year. Le Figaro ironically called this a “Big Bang.” (Now what is the French for schadenfreude?)

An excellent report written by trade expert David Henig for the advocacy group Best for Britain argues that the Johnson deal is only “a framework for future co-operation.” He goes on to identify a long list of areas where it would be in Britain’s longer-term economic interest to secure further agreements. Many of these, such as a finding of “equivalence” for Britain’s financial services, are in the unilateral gift of the EU – and some can be withdrawn at will, as the Swiss have found out. The asymmetry of power between the two sides is now more acute than ever.

And all for what? If “sovereignty” means a state’s formal legal authority to make its own laws, adjudicated by its own courts, then Britain has gained some more sovereignty. If “sovereignty” means the effective power of a state to control its own destiny and advance its national interests, then Britain has lost sovereignty.

The point here is not to replay the old Brexit “in or out” debate. It is that in this liminal swamp of permanent negotiation, there will be endless occasions for bad-tempered disagreement, competition and conflict.

The question for all people of intelligence and goodwill on both sides of the Channel is therefore how to avoid falling into the Vidal trap. That doesn’t mean no competition. Competition is good for business. Indeed, historians have argued that the level of competition between various players is what historically made Europe rich and powerful, by contrast with more monolithic polities such as China. The trick is to find the right balance of competition and co-operation.

Here, there is a glimmer of hope. For when it comes to Russia, or China, or Iran, or climate change, Britain and most continental European countries are on the same side. Brexit doesn’t change that. So there is a larger strategic logic of co-operation that cuts against the political logic of jealous rivalry.

But this rational insight, shared even by Britain’s hard-Brexiter government, is not enough in itself to ensure a good cross-Channel relationship after Brexit. That requires trust, goodwill, clear communication and frequent interaction. After nearly five years of miserable Brexit argy-bargy, trust and goodwill are in short supply.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Minister who is, next to Mr. Johnson, Britain’s leading “Mr. Brexit,” says the country now has a “special relationship” with the EU. At the moment, that is just waffle. To make it a reality would require establishing new channels of communication to replace the thick web of daily interaction Britain lost on leaving the EU. I see some willingness in Downing Street to do this bilaterally, especially with Germany and France, but none so far to do it with the EU as such.

Looking at the online roster of British government ministers, all I find is a mention of “future relations with the EU” under Mr. Gove (who in practice seems to be the Minister for Everything), while the Foreign Secretary has “Europe” listed among his responsibilities. Under him there is a junior minister “for European Neighbourhood and Americas,” of the same rank as a junior minister, in another department, “for Rough Sleeping and Housing.” If the government goes on like this, then its “special relationship” with the EU will be ripe for the biting quip I once heard former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt make about Britain’s vaunted special relationship with the United States: “It’s so special that only one side knows it exists.”

So after Brexit, Britain more than ever needs a European policy – and the EU needs a Britain policy.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe