After an acrimonious divorce and years of bickering, Britain’s government looks like it wants to make up with the European Union. The tax-cutting economic plans of the country’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, has her feuding at home with financial markets, the opposition and chunks of her own Conservative Party.
But abroad, European politicians and diplomats have noticed a marked softening of tone since Truss took over from Boris Johnson a month ago. Truss and her ministers say they want to solve a fractious dispute with the European Union over post-Brexit trade rules.
On Thursday, the British leader plans to travel to the Czech Republic for the first meeting of the European Political Community, an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron.
A few weeks ago, British officials were cool about the new forum, which includes the 27 EU member countries, aspiring members and the U.K., the only nation to have left the bloc. Now, the government says Truss intends to play a leading role at the summit, where she will use an opening session address to urge unity against the “strategic challenges” exposed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — especially Europe’s energy dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Britain was looking at the new grouping “with an open mind.”
“We want to find ways of working well with our neighbors and partners and friends in Europe,” he said at the governing Conservative Party’s annual conference this week. The European Political Community has another advantage for post-Brexit Britain: It shows “there is more to Europe than the EU,” Cleverly said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put Brexit in perspective and brought Western allies closer together. The energy squeeze and cost-of-living crisis unleashed by the war have given governments in Britain and across Europe more pressing problems to deal with.
Truss’ office says she plans to tell the Prague summit that “Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War, and we have faced it together with unity and resolve.”
“We must continue to stand firm — to ensure that Ukraine wins this war, but also to deal with the strategic challenges that it has exposed,” she plans to say in her address.
The U.K. has also softened its tone – if not its stance – in the dispute with the EU over trade rules for Northern Ireland.
Arrangements for Northern Ireland — the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU nation — have been the most contentious issue so far in the U.K.-E.U. divorce. The two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Instead, some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. undergo checks.
That solution has spiraled into a political crisis for the power-sharing government in Belfast, with British Unionist politicians refusing to form a government with Irish nationalists because they see the checks as undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
With talks between the U.K. and the EU to solve the problem gridlocked, Johnson’s government introduced legislation earlier this year to suspend the checks and rip up part of its legally binding Brexit treaty. The unilateral move brought legal action from the EU and the risk of an all-out trade war.
Truss’ government has not abandoned that bill, which is on a slow journey through Parliament. But Cleverly has stressed his warm relationship with the EU’s Brexit chief, Maros Sefcovic, and negotiators from the two sides have held their first talks in months.
“I think there is a recognition that it’s in our collective interest to get this result,” Cleverly said.
Even Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker, a Brexit hardliner who helped scuttle former Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to forge a closer relationship with the EU, apologized and promised “to work extremely hard” to improve relations.
“I and others did not always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests, legitimate interests that we’re willing to respect,” Baker said.
European leaders are welcoming, but wary. They want the U.K. to scrap both the treaty-breaching legislation and its insistence on removing the European Court of Justice’s role in overseeing the Brexit agreement.
“We’ve had positive mood music before, but it does feel a slightly better kind of positive mood music,” David Henig, a trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, said. “Coming at the (Conservative) conference, where you wouldn’t expect it to come … it does feel like there is something there.”
“I’m not getting out the hallelujahs yet that it’s the start of a long-term change,” Henig said. “But because of where it’s happening, I take it slightly more seriously this time.”