The European Union and Britain need to work together to face shared challenges, European Council president Charles Michel said on Monday after Rishi Sunak became Britain’s new prime minister.
Britain became the first country to leave the EU in 2020 after years of acrimonious Brexit negotiations that have left sensitive issues around the Irish Border unresolved and weighing on ties between the 27-nation bloc and London.
But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th and related energy and cost of living crises engulfing Europe, the bloc still wants to have Britain as an ally facing challenges from geopolitics to climate change.
“Working together is the only way to face common challenges … and bringing stability is key to overcoming them,” Mr Michel said on Twitter.
European leaders, including French president Emmanuel Macron and Taoiseach Micheál Martin, said last week after Liz Truss resigned as British prime minister that the EU mostly wanted to have a stable and predictable neighbour.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said Ms Truss’s successor would be his “number five” British leader and Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel, in power since 2013, said: “I hope I can recall how many British PMs I’ve survived.”
The EU has watched the political crisis engulfing Britain with growing consternation. But on Monday, EU officials and diplomats were cautiously optimistic about the prospect of working with Mr Sunak, the UK’s third prime minister in less than two months.
“The first thing is a profound disbelief and puzzlement about how bad things are going in the UK,” said one EU official. With that in mind, the official added, Mr Sunak is seen as a more reliable partner than Ms Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson.
“He seems to be more sensible than many other types in Britain nowadays. He did warn against Truss’s reckless economic policies. EU leaders want a rational counterpart in the EU, the question for us is if we have a reasonable partner there.”
Another EU official gave a similar message. “Things seemed a bit less complicated with Truss than with Johnson. But she’s gone,” said the person. “Britain has a lot to gain from a more stable relationship with the EU — more so than ever. So let’s see.”
An EU diplomat said Mr Sunak had shown he understood the constraints of the market and hoped that, also due to US pressure to reach agreement on the Irish Border issue, the bloc would see “a more sensible approach” from London.
The two sides are stuck on the Northern Ireland protocol, part of their Brexit divorce deal that sets trading rules for the British region that London had agreed before it left the EU but has since said are unworkable.
At stake are links between Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK, the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the EU’s cherished single market of 450 million people.
Georg Riekeles of the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels, and previously a member of the EU’s Brexit negotiating team, said the bloc had long signalled it was ready to compromise but got the cold shoulder from Mr Johnson and Ms Truss.
“The opportunity for a reset is clearly there,” he said. “Now times are tough all over Europe ... Once in Downing Street, [Mr Sunak] would have many reasons to go for more constructive co-operation with the EU.” — Reuters