Johnson loves the world stage – he just has no idea where Britain’s place is on it

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: WPA/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

It would be wrong to say that Boris Johnson has no foreign policy. He has at least one. It is a good one, too – supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression. What he lacks is a strategic concept of how Britain fits into the world and how it should maximise the advantages of that fit.

Brexit was supposed to be that concept and it has failed. The economic damage inflicted by withdrawal from the EU single market is only half of that failure. According to Eurosceptic ideology, the suffocating burden of Brussels bureaucracy condemned the whole of Europe to decline. The future belonged to “Global Britain”, sailing off into its sovereign future without a backward glance.

But when Ukraine came under attack, it was very much a European Britain that felt compelled to act on a strategic and moral imperative learned from European history. Brexit has not stopped the UK and continental allies maintaining a united front against the Kremlin. But nor has it made that dialogue easier. From the Eurosceptic perspective, the past few months have proved that Britain’s leading role in continental matters is undiminished by surrender of a seat at the EU’s top table. Nato is the forum for defence policy. The G7 is a club where leaders from London, Paris and Berlin get to hang out, and unlike a European council, they don’t have to cede the floor to little nations.

There is truth enough in that analysis to get by from one week to the next, which is now the ceiling of Johnson’s governing ambition. But the Ukraine war is an exceptional crisis, not a template for future UK-EU collaboration. The state of relations in every other respect is grim. The mood was captured in a joint article published last week by the German and Irish foreign ministers on the topic of Johnson’s plan to override the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement. The moral core of the authors’ objection was that unilateral rejection of an international treaty gives succour to rogue regimes that despise the rules-based order on which the EU was founded. It was a project for peace, achieved by adherence to law and democracy, before it evolved into a regulatory superpower.

There is no place for that definition of “Europe” in the Brexit lexicon, where the word is used either in the plain geographical sense, as a continental landmass, or in the paranoid delusional sense as a conspiracy against nationhood. In the first of those meanings, Britain could still be part of Europe after Brexit, and in the second one Europe was a mortal foe. Either way, no thought was given to a constructive future partnership. Now that thinking has to be done, but it is hard to complete without the requisite mental vocabulary.

The same omission was on display this week when Keir Starmer set out his own European policy – a five-point plan to mitigate the harm done by Johnson’s deal, without fundamentally changing it.

There is a defensive logic here. The Tories want to fight an election on the basis that Starmer, a city slicker, metropolitan remoaner, is itching to reverse Brexit because he loves foreigners and hates freedom. By ruling out a return to the single market, Starmer aims to spike those guns. He might irritate a lot of pro-Europeans in the process, but they won’t express that frustration by voting Conservative, so the electoral cost is capped. (It is notable, on this point, that the Liberal Democrats have opted not to stoke remainer anger with Starmer. They also need swing votes from leavers in Tory-held constituencies.)

The Labour plan is to win an election on domestic issues, and only then, with the levers of office securely in hand, change course on Europe. Noisily advertising the second stage of that ambition risks jeopardising the first stage. Admitting the ends sabotages the means.

Many glum remainers will acknowledge that Starmer’s decision may be the best available under the circumstances, while finding those circumstances depressing. It would also be easier to have confidence in the author of a plan if he didn’t always sound like he would rather be elsewhere when presenting it. The Labour leader looks like a man trying to sneak up on power instead of seizing the moment. He taps gingerly at Johnson’s door when the walls of his regime are coming down.

It is perhaps to Starmer’s credit – a mark of repressed sincerity – that he can’t credibly fake enthusiasm for a policy of fixing Brexit when he could see all along that it was a bad idea. His awkwardness expresses a problem that goes deeper than Johnson’s Brexit deal, deeper than trade policy or electoral arithmetic. It is encoded in the basic grammar of British politics. It is the habit, acquired over many decades, of using the word Europe to mean “them” and never “us”.

Eurosceptics always believed the distinction was hardwired by history and culture. They took the referendum as vindication of that view. The persistence of anger and grief within the remainer minority suggests a more complicated picture. A project of democratic solidarity among nations is not the mainstream definition of Europe in this country, but nor is it completely alien to the British imagination. That happens also to be the ideal motivating Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership.

Britain doesn’t need to share that view to have a functional relationship with its neighbours. But it needs a government that understands “Europe” to mean more than just a bunch of countries lumped together on the same continent. Getting rid of the prime minister who has spent his career defining that lump as the enemy would at least be a start.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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