The writer is an FT contributing editor
Britain is in search of a new foreign policy. Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit fantasy of a second Elizabethan age departed with its author. Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has demanded a rewrite of the government’s security and defence policy. Rishi Sunak’s first task, though, is to rebuild international respect. The prime minister can claim some progress during his first months in Downing Street. It will count for nought unless he makes the UK’s peace with the EU.
The reality of Johnson’s “Global Britain” has been a nation deeply mistrusted in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and beyond. Johnson’s fight with Brussels about trade arrangements for Northern Ireland saw Joe Biden close the door of the White House. Liz Truss, his shortlived successor in No 10, seemed uninterested in winning either friends or influence, struggling to decide whether French president Emmanuel Macron was friend or foe.
With Sunak, vainglorious exceptionalism has made way for quiet emollience. The message from Downing Street is that the country has a sober, honest leader again. He wants to refurbish broken friendships. And the initial signs are promising. The prime minister has opened talks to end the running post-Brexit dispute with Brussels and has found a rapport with Macron. Next month the president will host a Franco-British summit, the first since January 2018. A state visit by King Charles is expected to follow.
Scratch below the surface of age-old Franco-British rivalry and these best of enemies have a mutual interest in getting closer. As nuclear powers with permanent seats at the UN Security Council, they see themselves as a cut above their European partners. They are ready to deploy their armed forces — but they struggle to pay the military bills in tough economic times.
The 2010 Lancaster House accord, signed before Brexit cast its dark shadow, opened the way to joint work on modernisation of both nations’ nuclear deterrents. There is plenty of additional scope for conventional forces collaboration. Elsewhere, diplomats make the case for joint action on climate change. Additional undersea electricity interconnectors would underpin mutual energy security. For his part, Sunak depends on French goodwill to reduce the flow of undocumented migrants crossing the Channel in small boats.
Putin’s aggression has given the prime minister a useful route back into European diplomacy. The warm thanks offered by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his visit to London this week underscored the government’s role in supporting Kyiv from the outset of the conflict. Sunak’s offer of Challenger tanks helped break the logjam on western supplies of heavy weapons. Along with France and Germany, the UK is part of the US-led Quad steering the west’s response to the war.
Tone and personal relationships matter in foreign policy. As unexciting as Sunak seems at home, his sobriety makes a welcome change abroad. Biden has pencilled in a visit to London and Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement in April. An invitation to the White House could follow. So far so encouraging. But handshakes are not enough. Britain will not regain a voice in the world as long as it is estranged from the EU. Biden, Macron and the rest want to see Sunak end the angry stand-off with the EU provoked by Johnson’s threat to renege on the trade deal. American diplomats have signalled that Biden’s trip is conditional on a settlement. So too is a thaw with German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Johnson now repudiates a deal he once claimed as a triumph but Sunak has suspended Johnson’s threat of unilateral action. The terms of the Northern Ireland protocol — needed to sustain the open north-south Irish border provided for in the Good Friday accord — are the subject of intense negotiations with Brussels. Officials say a bargain could see the EU minimise checks on trade across the Irish Sea in return for a British commitment to upholding EU single market rules in Northern Ireland.
What’s needed is political courage on Sunak’s part. If he wants to settle he will have to face down opposition to any compromise from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists and from his own hardline MPs. The Brexit fundamentalists are ready to tear up the UK’s treaty obligations.
The messages from Downing Street are mixed. In one breath Sunak emphasises the imperative to normalise relations with the UK’s most important economic partner. In the next he slips into his party’s ideological comfort zone by promising to light a bonfire of all traces of EU regulation remaining on Britain’s statute book. His European partners can be forgiven for being confused.
The false promise of the Brexiters was that leaving the EU would set the nation free to reclaim an exalted role in global affairs. The reality has been economic stagnation and a diminished international role. Grand forays “East of Suez” look positively delusional when the army is struggling to meet its basic Nato obligations for the defence of Europe.
The economic output and global reputation lost to Brexit will never be fully reclaimed. Britain still has considerable strengths, but a sustained national recovery depends on regaining the collaboration of European partners and the confidence of the US. The essential first step for Sunak is to show the UK can once again be a reliable ally.