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Brexit is a machine to generate perpetual grievance. It's doing its job perfectly

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23.02.2021

Brexit has changed everything about Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and also nothing. For anyone trying to do business across borders newly gummed with bureaucracy, the comparison is stark and painful. But in politics, an old pattern is playing out – a cycle of suspicion and self-sabotage that began long before the 2016 referendum.

It starts with the belief that Britain does not depend on its neighbours for trade or anything else. That leads to neglect of the diplomacy required to make the partnership work. Going against the grain of economics and geography escalates every negotiation into a test of national self-esteem. Each adjustment for reality is resented as a surrender of sovereignty.

Euroscepticism is a machine for generating perpetual grievance. It works by making Brussels the enemy, spoiling relations and serving up the soured mood to a domestic audience as proof that the other side does not want to be friends.

Brexit has dismantled the institutional platform on which that drama used to be played, but it does not change the economic and strategic dynamics. The UK still needs things from Brussels, but it has lost the leverage it had from a seat at the EU summit table. This makes it harder for Boris Johnson to play the old double game of public belligerence and private compromise. (On that score, EU membership was the way previous prime ministers used to have their cake and eat it.)

Johnson has no interest in the practical side of European diplomacy. His 2019 promise to “get Brexit done” expressed a personal preference for changing the subject of British politics – a preference that chimed with the enervated public mood. Since Johnson only applies........

© The Guardian


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