The United Kingdom has had some turbulent years. The bad news: The future doesn’t look particularly rosy, either. The economic forecasts are gloomy, the health care system is facing overload, inflation is expected to rise to more than 10 percent in the autumn, and no one knows exactly what "Brexit" actually means.
For Germans and other Europeans, the question is whether the UK is a suitable partner in the medium term. Is the island, shaken by domestic crises and an eternal debate about Europe, finally becoming unpredictable to the outside world?
Boris Johnson, who announced he would resign on Thursday, is personally responsible for the fact that trust in the British government is at close to zero in many European capitals. Relations between Berlin and London are pretty much on ice. For Britain, though, a country that has been governed for almost three years by a clown together with ideologues and crackpots, this is more than an image problem. At the latest, the country’s reputation as a pragmatic middle power had been destroyed by the point he took office. It’s quite possible that sighs of relief could be heard within the president’s office in the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Chancellery in Berlin when Johnson announced his resignation.
Prime Minister Johnson at 10 Downing Street in London on WednesdayFoto: IMAGO/Vudi Xhymshiti / IMAGO/VXPictures.com
But his party will continue to argue about how the country should position itself in terms of the rest of Europe, because disagreement still abounds over the matter, even six years after the referendum to leave the European Union. The battle between ideologues who reject anything European and moderates who see it as an economic imperative to move closer to the continent is not going to end with Johnson's departure. Indeed, Brexit continues to threaten the country’s domestic stability.
Moreover, Scotland is likely to vote again next year on secession from the rest of the UK. The danger that the nationalists will win and the Scots will opt for independence is significantly greater than it was during the first referendum in 2014.
The question also remains of what Brexit means for Northern Ireland. Both London and Brussels want to avoid a hard border between the north and the south of the island of Ireland at any cost. So far, though, no one has a solution, partly because assurances and treaties have been repeatedly broken by Downing Street in London.
And yet there is no substitute for Britain in Europe. In the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European countries, London, as opposed to Berlin, is regarded as a reliable partner. Johnson’s visits to Kyiv and his, from Berlin’s point of view, too unrestrained and grand gestures toward Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have been met with applause there. Johnson’s colleagues Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi simply traveled there too late for their taste when they went to Kyiv last month.
The British military has been training Ukrainian soldiers for years, and support for the country is strong across party lines. London took an early and very public stand against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And yet the limits of British involvement are also becoming clear in Ukraine. In a long-awaited strategy paper on its new foreign and security policy, the British government last year announced a pivot toward the Pacific: more money, more ships, more weapons for a region that Washington and London see as the theater in the coming confrontation with China.
In the summer, Johnson’s administration deployed the new 65,000-ton aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, with its more than a dozen F-35 fighter jets, destroyers, frigates and a nuclear submarine, to the Indo-Pacific region. The move was intended as a demonstration of power, but also to show proof of strength. "Global Britain" was back, as Brexit campaigners dreaming of imperial prominence saw it.
The British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth is accompanied by Japanese ships in the Philippine Sea in this October 2021 archive photo.Foto: Gray Gibson / AP
Europe Needs British Ships, Soldiers and Weapons
But now the pivot toward the Pacific has become a risk. As one of the Europe’s two nuclear powers, Putin’s war demands much of Britain. British ships, soldiers and weapons are needed on the Continent. London has already announced plans to increase its military involvement in the Baltic region. In April, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace dispatched tanks, artillery and 8,000 troops for exercises in the region. The country is also engaged with arms deliveries, reconnaissance flights and intelligence surveillance.
The danger is great that the UK will stretch itself too thin between the North Sea, the Atlantic and the Pacific. The disaster of the 2003 Iraq war, when Tony Blair’s government sent more than 46,000 troops to the Middle East, still looms as a trauma in the collective memory. The weariness of war and intervention in the UK is now similar to that in the United States.
For the EU and Britain, it will now be a matter of working together more closely again after years of mutually cultivated apathy. If the UK wants to be taken seriously, if it doesn’t want to overreach itself in foreign policy, then it will need to build more bridges than it destroys.
The "Global Britain" PR slogan hasn’t been made any more credible by the fact that the government in London has cut development aid, pulled out of Europe’s Erasmus university exchange program and even tried to deport migrants to Rwanda illegally. After the end of the Johnson era, a gigantic task is now awaiting British diplomats.