Does the EU want to be a friend or an enemy?
The final act of the UK’s accession to the European Union took place yesterday in Brussels amid acrimony, resentment and threats as the European Parliament voted on the terms of the trade deal signed last December. The bitter reaction from officials and MEPs to the loss of one of its largest member states reminded those supporting Brexit why they voted to leave. Any pretense of seeking a friendly relationship with Britain seems to have been abandoned.
Commission chairwoman Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would not hesitate to impose tariffs on Britain if it did not meet the requirements of the Northern Ireland Protocol to treat the province as part of the single European market. This despite the fact that the way the protocol works is the source of tensions in Northern Ireland which spill over into the streets. Given that a key point of the EU’s negotiating position was apparently to prevent a return to violence on the island, why is she persisting with this, rather than working with Britain to reach a mutually acceptable compromise to help defuse matters?
Is it because those who oppose the protocol are trade unionists rather than nationalists that the issue is no longer important for the EU? As discussions on a solution continue, Britain unilaterally extended the grace periods in the treaty, triggering legal action from the commission.
France has also threatened to hit financial services unless its trawlers have better access to British waters, which they keep to the anger of British fishermen. Does the EU really want a trade war as European economies suffer from lockdowns and poor vaccine rollout? Michel Barnier, the former chief negotiator, said Brexit was a failure for the EU and urged him to learn from it. Yet the current commission appears determined to make the future relationship less than harmonious.
Ms von der Leyen said there were “real teeth” in the trade deal, with binding remedies that would be used if necessary. The European Parliament has been given “exceptional powers” to oversee relations with Britain.
These are hardly the actions of a friend. There is now a serious foreign policy question that the government urgently needs to address: should we be allies or competitors? The EU seems to have made up its mind.