Brussels hopeful yet wary on UK ties after Johnson exit

EU Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and his press officer after he presents the Commission's package of proposals related to the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland during a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, 13 October 2021. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

After years of tense relations with Britain, the EU was Thursday (7 July) seeing hope of improved ties following the resignation of Brexit champion Boris Johnson, though wariness lingered.

While the European Commission publicly dodged commenting about the political upheaval in the UK, others in Brussels’ orbit let loose.

“The departure of Boris Johnson opens a new page in relations with Britain,” Michel Barnier, the former top EU negotiator for Brexit, tweeted.

“May it be more constructive, more respectful of commitments made, in particular regarding peace & stability in Northern Ireland, and more friendly with partners in the EU. Because there’s so much more to be done together.”

The European Parliament’s former coordinator on Brexit matters, ex-Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted: “Boris Johnson’s reign ends in disgrace, just like his friend Donald Trump.”

He expressed hope that Johnson’s resignation signalled “the end of an era of transatlantic populism” and said “EU-UK relations suffered hugely with Johnson’s choice of Brexit. Things can only get better!”

There was no sign, though, that the European Union was about to halt legal action launched against Britain for its effort under Johnson to rip up parts of the Brexit deal concerning Northern Ireland.

That process continued, a commission spokesman, Daniel Ferrie, told journalists.

A day earlier, commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, had underlined EU hostility to a British bill still working its way through the UK parliament that aims to override parts of the deal that keeps the British territory of Northern Ireland under EU trade rules.

EU-UK ties must be based on that deal and a subsequent trade pact, he said, stressing that the Northern Ireland protocol “is an integral part” of that framework.

Analysts, though, noted that while Johnson had resigned, it was not yet clear when he would vacate the prime minister’s office. He has said he plans to stay on until his party was close to selecting a successor, which could take months.

“Johnson hasn’t entirely let go” and could be hoping “to find a way to bounce back,” Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute think-tank, told AFP.

It was also unclear who might take over as British prime minister.

Some of the frontrunners are at least as committed to hard Brexit as Johnson was, and Britain’s ruling Tory party is riven by factions that push its leaders to the right.

“What likely worries the Europeans is that one of the candidates to succeed him is (British Foreign Minister) Liz Truss, who has been very aggressive on the Northern Ireland protocol,” Fabry said.

“For the Europeans, the short-term priority is to hope for renewed and reinvigorated dialogue on the Northern Ireland protocol in at least a minimally constructive way,” she said.

Editor's take: What direction for EU-UK relations after Johnson’s luck runs out? 

With Boris Johnson gone, the question for Europe is whether now with the primary source of the poison infecting EU-UK relations since 2016 gone, the relationship between London and Brussels will improve, writes Benjamin Fox.

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