“You have to ignore them and let them cook in their own broth.” The message from a high-ranking community source, just three weeks ago, perfectly sums up the feeling in Brussels with the evolution of the political crisis in the United Kingdom and bilateral relations in very low hours.
For years, since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the negotiations and contacts with London were constant, a daily nightmare with David Cameron, Theresa Mary, Boris Johnson and their different teams of advisers, always in rotation. But since the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement, the Irish protocol and the Free Trade Agreement, the change has been total.
The problems persist, the United Kingdom has not respected what was signed, it does almost what it wants, it constantly threatens to break the deck and has even carried out legislation that undoubtedly ignores international law and shatters the reputation of the country. And even so, the reaction in Brussels and the rest of the continental capitals has been minimal, sometimes non-existent. They have ignored the rudeness, lowered the level, they have refused to enter the game. Waiting for them to cook in their own broth. Johnson has done nothing but accumulate firewood and light matches and his former associates were only waiting for him to light the fire.
In the world of international relations there is only one thing worse than when your opponents, rivals or enemies react forcefully to your movements: that they do not react at all. Johnson began from the first day in Downing Street that he outweighed Theresa May, that he was smarter, more dangerous and less trustworthy than her. But he also made it clear that there was no point in behaving with him like with other world leaders. He does not respond to the same codes or incentives. He did not do it as a correspondent in the EU and not as prime minister in relations with her. So he stopped taking it seriously, getting into his game.
His fall is news, but in Brussels, tremendously pragmatic, they are still not sure if it is good or bad. No one is going to cry for him, of course. De May lamented his irrelevance within the Tories, his weakness. He had no charisma, no leadership skills, no strategic genius and no left hand with the opposition, so when he desperately needed the opposition’s backing the bridges were down. But he had principles, tenacity and patience and resistance to the stabs of his own. Johnson No.
Once the Withdrawal Agreement was signed, the pressure and media attention dropped a lot, on both sides of the Channel. The last two years of bilateral relations and discussions are a collection of deceptions, lies, vagueness, delays, lies and provocations. London has not fulfilled its part of the deal, the (soft) border between the Irelands is a leak, smuggling has skyrocketed, there are no health controls and the Northern Irish political board is upside down. It has not offered solutions, it has not sat down at the table. It has only made the partridge dizzy to see if, due to laziness or frustration, the EU ends up folding. It was not absurd, because it has yielded time and time again, giving extensions, extending deadlines, responding lukewarmly to illegalities, without punching the table as the actions justify. It was what Johnson wanted, a fight, an open fight, and they never gave it to him. So he was never comfortable.
Johnson has been flirting since October with the idea of destroying the Protocol, for purely national political reasons, and the result of the last elections (which boosted Sinn Fein) is what pushed just a few weeks ago to put in place legislation that unilaterally destroys what was signed with Brussels after years of tiresome diplomatic and technical work. That’s why his exit is anything but a drama. But if Westminster and Downing Street have learned a lesson since 2016, it is that if everything in the UK can get worse, it will get worse. And that the successor may be the same or worse, a figure undoubtedly more questioned, less settled, less media and in need of victories and symbols.
Brexit has divided the country and British society, it has broken up the parties, caused early elections, engulfed prime ministers and made the atmosphere rarefied. The fall of the Prime Minister has nothing to do with Europe, but the Tories’ strategy in the face of internal chaos and destruction has been systematically to blame outsiders for their problems. So the prime minister’s successor or successor has incentives to look for scapegoats. In the face of a national crisis, nothing better than an international row, and the question of Ireland is at hand. It is not the most prudent, nor perhaps intelligent, but it is close at hand.
In Brussels the reaction is almost indifference. There is little guilty pleasure in the downfall, without honor, of an unscrupulous leader. He has not left a single friend, a single admirer or almost a single supporter, from himself, but almost also from the United Kingdom. The last six years are the story of a historical disappointment, of the disappearance in Europe of the British myth, built over centuries of presence in the world, diplomatic mastery and economic and cultural power.
Continental leaders, and institutions, are not asking for much now. They don’t expect miracles, they don’t need statistics, they settle for a leader who respects international agreements, who doesn’t break his word before he even leaves the room and who can restore Britain to its reputation, dignity and place on the continent.
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