With division at home, UK’s Truss seeks to thaw EU relations

After a bitter divorce and years of bickering, it looks like the British government is looking to reconcile with the European Union.

The country’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, has been left to grapple with the financial markets, the opposition and sections of her own Conservative Party with her tax-cutting economic plans. But abroad, European politicians and diplomats have noticed a marked softening of tone since Truss took over from Boris Johnson a month ago.

Truss and her ministers say they want to resolve a heated dispute with the European Union over post-Brexit trade rules. On Thursday, the British leader plans to travel to the Czech Republic for the first meeting of the European Political Community, an initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron.

A few weeks ago, British officials were calm about the new forum, which includes the 27 EU member countries, prospective members and Britain, the only nation to leave the bloc.

Now the government says Truss intends to play a leading role at the summit, where it will use an opening session address to urge unity against the “strategic challenges” highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – particularly Europe Energy dependency on Russian oil and gas.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said Britain was “open-minded” about the new grouping.

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“We want to find ways to work well with our neighbors, partners and friends in Europe,” he said at the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference this week.

The European Political Community has another benefit for post-Brexit Britain: it shows “that Europe is more than the EU,” Cleverly said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put Brexit into perspective and brought Western allies closer together. The war-induced energy shortages and cost of living crisis have created more pressing issues for governments in Britain and across Europe to contend with.

Truss’ office says it plans to tell the Prague summit that “Europe is facing its biggest crisis since World War II, and we have faced it together with unity and determination.”

“We must continue to stand firm – to ensure Ukraine wins this war, but also to meet the strategic challenges it faces,” she plans to say in her address.

Britain, too, has softened its tone – if not its stance – in its dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland’s trade rules.

Arrangements for Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU country – have been the most contentious issue in the UK-EU divorce so far. The two sides agreed to keep Ireland’s border free of customs posts and other controls, as an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Instead, some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are subject to controls.

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This solution has turned into a political crisis for the power-sharing government in Belfast, with British unionist politicians refusing to form a government with Irish nationalists because they see the controls as undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

With talks between the UK and the EU deadlocked to resolve the issue, Johnson’s government introduced legislation earlier this year to suspend controls and tear up part of its legally binding Brexit deal. The unilateral move brought legal action from the EU and the risk of a full-scale trade war.

The Truss government has not abandoned this bill, which is slowly moving through Parliament. But Cleverly has stressed its cordial relationship with EU Brexit boss Maros Sefcovic, and negotiators from both sides have had their first talks in months.

“I think it’s recognized that it’s in our mutual interest to achieve this result,” Cleverly said.

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Even Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker, a Brexit hardliner who helped scuttle former Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to forge a closer relationship with the EU, apologized and vowed to “work extremely hard” to get the to improve relationships.

“I and others have not always acted in a way that encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us that they have legitimate interests, legitimate interests that we are prepared to respect,” Baker said.

European leaders are welcoming but cautious. They want the UK to abandon both breaching legislation and its insistence on abolishing the European Court of Justice’s role in overseeing the Brexit deal.

“We’ve had positive vibes music before, but it feels a little better than positive vibes music,” said David Henig, trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy. “Coming into the (Conservative) conference where you wouldn’t expect it… it feels like there’s something there.”

“I’m not yet bringing out the hallelujahs that it’s the beginning of a long-term change,” Henig said. “But because of where it’s happening, I’m taking it a little more seriously this time.”


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