When it rains, it pours. After seemingly defying the implausible for months, if not years, Boris Johnson’s premiership was brought to an end at an astonishing pace. 42 hours after the Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigned, kickstarting the resignation of 60 Government members including 5 Cabinet Secretaries, Johnson confirmed he would stand down as Conservative Party leader and ultimately, Prime Minister. It is increasingly looking like the Conservative Party will adopt a speedy, truncated leadership contest with a view to installing a new Prime Minister in early September. For many, the writing was on the wall for a while, and Sajid Javid’s resignation speech, in which he stated that the ‘he reset button can work only so many times’ in relation to Johnson, showcased the mood of the party (and arguably the nation) that a new Prime Minister was needed.
Written by Christian Turner, NEXTEUK Project Manager Summer 2022 and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Britain and Europe, based within the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey
What does Johnson’s resignation mean for UK-EU relations? It is fair to say that relations are at their lowest point since the UK Government unveiled its controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which gives the UK Government the power to unilaterally circumvent the Northern Ireland Protocol of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The EU have reacted furiously to this, describing it as a ‘breach of international law’ and stating that issues with the Protocol can only be resolved by negotiations. For many in the EU, there will now be hope that a new leader will be willingly to engage in negotiations, as well as act in a more respectful manner in regard to the situation at hand.
Yet, Johnson’s actions over Ukraine, delivering the highest defence and humanitarian aid contribution in Europe, has seen build a positive relationship with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Johnson’s Government also signed mutual defence pacts with Finland and Sweden respectively as part of their NATO accession, whilst bolstering British defensive commitments to Eastern Europe as fears grow of expanding Russian aggression. In short, Johnson has been happy to use Britain’s hard power and has built good-will east of Berlin. Yet, in Paris and Berlin, the so-called E3, relations have plummeted. Johnson and Macron endured a difficult personal relationship, with the French President describing him as a clown back in December. Even at their so-called ‘reset’ bilateral at the G7, Johnson’s two-footing over the proposed European Political Community showcased the difficult across the EU in placing trust in him. The new German government have similarly grown frustrated and the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock penned a joint article with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, insisting the UK respect the Northern Ireland protocol. It is these difficulties that have seen E3 coordination on issues beyond the Iranian Nuclear Accord struggle.
Yet, whilst Johnson’s departure presents an opportunity for a reset in UK-EU relations, it is not clear that will be seized by the Conservative Party. It is fair to say that amongst the likely leadership contenders, there is a clear divide emerging between those that favour repairing and improving relations with the EU, and another camp which believes a hostile approach is best. In the former camp, likely contenders such as Tom Tugenhadt, Rishi Sunak and Ben Wallace are all believed to favour a calming down of rhetoric with Brussels and fundamentally, the avoidance of trade confrontations which are at risk if the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill were to be passed in Parliament.
Conversely, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Attorney General Suella Braverman and European Research Group member Steve Baker are all likely to adopt a strong tone with Brussels, perhaps going further than even Johnson was prepared to stomach. Indeed, there was often a feeling that whilst Johnson ‘played to the gallery’ in terms of Brexit issues, he stopped short of imploding relations. The same cannot be said for the trio, who are all expected to stand for the leadership.
Therefore, the mood is ambivalent. Some, such as the EU’s former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, have spoken of Johnson’s departure opening ‘a new page’ in UK-EU relations. Others have stressed that whist the change presents an opportunity, there is a concern that it may not result in change as his ‘ousting had very little to do with his Brexit approach’. What is clear is that there is a genuine hope across the European Union that a more serious and trustworthy British leader can help rebuild relations that have deteriorated since 2016. As Europe faces its gravest, collective security crisis since the Cold War, one is reminded of the words of the 16th century poet John Donne – No man is an entire of itself; every man
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