This tweet caught my eye this morning:
Underlines the problem facing the EU as retaliatory steps liable only to reinforce this perception. The EU may be an effective negotiator, but it is pretty terrible when it comes to comms. https://t.co/zaBwCAtf5L
— Anand Menon (@anandMenon1) August 2, 2021
My first reaction: why would the EU even care?
My second reaction: even if the EU did care, there is nothing the EU can really do about this anyway.
And also then, beyond that, even writing this, and writing it this way, is rooted in a superiority complex of the Brits (well of course the EU must care about this) and also the assumption that the EU playing hard ball over something is wrong for the EU to do. Would any Brit write similar about the USA determinedly defending its own interests? No, I doubt it, because the assumption would be that that’s just what the EU does.
Were we to then dig further still, and assume that – for some reason – the EU did want to try to win the battle of the hearts and minds of the British people, would the EU (and, I presume, we sort of mean the EU institutions here – and especially the European Commission) possibly be in a position to win that battle anyway? The answer there is clearly a no. Hell, even the Labour Party, which is supposed to be the opposition in Westminster, cannot get a look in when it comes to landing a blow in the communications battle with the Tories. To hope that the joint efforts of Ursula von der Leyen and Maroš Šefčovič could shape the headlines in the Daily Telegraph is, to put it mildly, a rather hopeful proposition.
I think there is also a further cause of the misconception here, and that dates back to the change that happened in December 2019. When Johnson and the Tories won the General Election that was it for the EU side, the point of no (short-term) return was crossed – Britain would now definitely be leaving, and with an unreliable and populist Prime Minister armed with a hefty majority, the EU retrenched to defending its side. Rejoin, or indeed even any sort of normalisation of UK-EU relations, was then and still is not even close to viable on the UK side, and will not be at least until Johnson and Frost have left the scene – and possibly not even until the Tories are no longer in power. With that in mind, the European Commission strategy has to be two-fold: to constrain the worst excesses of the UK side, and to shore up support for Ireland and try to make the UK maintain its commitment to what it agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland Protocol, and Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Now that might mean that British pro-EU people might be annoyed. Why, they might ask, is the EU not showing much flexibility regarding Northern Ireland (or indeed regarding a whole host of other issues that have cropped up throughout Brexit – from handling COVID border closures to Britain’s non-participation in Erasmus)?
The answer is that, for the moment, the European Commission correctly sees the UK as a lost case. Correctly sees a problematic state with a land border with the EU with an unreliable government that is a problem to be contained rather than solved. Correctly sees that defending the EU in the eyes of the populations of the 27 EU Member States is more important than even participating in the hot headed discussion in the British Tory-leaning press.
So sorry Anand, the EU might be terrible at comms in general. But that isn’t the problem here. The EU is behaving rationally by staying out of this. And one might hope that an academic heading a think tank might see it that way too.