Time for a Swarm of Gadflies?

Whatever we may feel about Brexit, it has been done – in a manner of speaking – but it leaves lots of loose ends to be sorted out. Badly needed improvements can only be made if negotiations are conducted in a spirit of mutual trust and good will.

Many of us hoped that, after the closure of painful negotiations and the exit of Britain from the EU, Johnson’s government would have seen the advantages of mending some of the fences that had been broken with our neighbours during an antagonistic divorce process. This would also have helped to heal the deeply divisive effects of the Brexit process on British society and on the integrity of the Union.

Even if Britain may not want to continue to sit round the same tables as the other European governments, it is abundantly clear that our country, if only because of geography, has much to gain from restoring and maintaining an amicable and constructive relationship with institutions and people on the other side of the Channel. What has been signed is essentially a trade agreement but, in negotiating this, our government has thrown a lot of valuable babies out with the bathwater.

What is more worrying is that, having met their supporters’ call for Brexit, the Prime Minister and some members of his Cabinet seem now to be adopting a pattern of behaviour intended to further worsen our relationships with the people of Europe. It has all the appearances of a deliberate attempt to burn bridges.

An Emerging Pattern of Europhobic Behaviour

A Slap in the Face for the EU Ambassador

One of the first volleys fired was in January 2021 when the UK signalled its intention not to give the EU mission in the UK the full diplomatic status that its representatives enjoy in 142 other countries. The resulting spat soured relationships at a time when the priority should have been to get together calmly with EU officials to smooth out the many vexatious teething problems that the rushed Brexit agreement was causing to businesses in Britain and in European countries.

Dispatching Gunboats

As soon as the government had climbed down on the representation dispute, Johnson upped the tension again by ordering the dispatch of two gunboats to the Channel Isles in response to demonstrations by French fishermen against the loss of their traditional fishing rights. Embarking on military action may have gratified the Conservatives’ supporters on the eve of UK’s 6th May local elections but it scuppered the chances of any badly needed progress towards negotiating adjustments to the Brexit agreement that could lead to a better quid pro quo deal to resolve its disastrous effects on both British and French fishermen.

Extending the Hostile Environment to Arriving European Visitors

In 2012, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, announced a new set of policies describing their aim as “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. This led to the Windrush scandal. Now. many Europeans living in Britain, often for donkeys’ years, are finding themselves at the wrong end of these policies that put them at risk of deportation because of the practical problems they face in providing documentary evidence to justify their acquired right to gain settled status before the imminent closure of the government’s registration programme at the end of June.

In what appears to be the latest extension of ‘hostile’ actions, the Border Force has recently started to summarily detain European citizens arriving in good faith in the UK as visitors, removing their passports, mobile phones  and prescribed medicines before consigning them to prison-like immigration detention centres where they remain in custody till they are deported. Many have been deeply traumatised by this treatment which – like our government’s horrific treatment of asylum seekers – stains Britain’s international reputation as a fair and decent country.

This move seems yet another example of the present government’s intent to ratchet up tensions in our relationship with European nations. The hugely distressing and callous treatment of arriving European visitors, while directed at unfortunate individuals, has the effect of projecting an image across Europe – where it has been widely publicised – of Britain being an unfriendly country committed to deliberately building a hostile relationship with its neighbours and allies. The European Movement is petitioning the government to bring to an end to the detention and deportation of EU citizens legally entering the UK.

The fact that there have been no apologies for detaining and deporting European visitors without charge suggests that these are not the random acts of over-zealous Border Force officers but are orchestrated responses to signals from a Home Secretary keen to deepen rifts between UK and Europe. If continued, such churlish actions seem bound to trigger comparable moves against British travellers entering EU countries and British citizens resident in EU countries..

Creating Hurdles to Cultural Exchange

At first it looked as though the requirement implied in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement that UK musicians and other performers touring in Europe would have to apply for a separate visa in each country through which they would play or travel was an unintended outcome of the negotiations relating to freedom of movement.

It increasingly seems that British acquiescence to this reflected the UK negotiators’ wish to increase Britain’s isolation from Europe. Apart from being disastrous for the incomes and careers of artistes and all the supporting services they employ (who are already badly hit by Covid 19), this would be enormously damaging to deeply embedded cultural relationships that long predate the founding of the European Union.

Similar to this, has been the Government’s withdrawal – contrary to earlier promises by Johnson – from Erasmus +.

A Possible Response

The government’s behaviour on each of these themes has been criticised by opposition parties and various elements of civil society.  In general, to the extent that there have been protests, petitions and critiques, these have been related to each specific topic, have been fragmented and have not been sustained.

It is evident that what we are seeing now are not isolated incidents but form parts of a pattern of ideology-driven behaviour that is intended to increasingly distance Britain from Europe so as to prevent any moves towards future rapprochement. In the coming months and until there is a next general election in Britain, we shall see many more instances of such Europhobia. These will ultimately widen the already alarming divisions between the nations of the United Kingdom and steadily erode the foundations of peaceful coexistence in the European region.

What is now required is a well-coordinated, relentless and vocal opposition to the government’s antagonistic approaches towards anything European. This would be aimed at strengthening public engagement in nurturing the concept of a ‘grown up’ constructive relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe.

The idea of creating a Progressive Alliance between opposition parties to defeat the present government in the next election is gaining ground. One of the issues on which it should be possible to get cross-party agreement in furthering its aim to “bring about a good society” is the need for Britain to have a government that wants amicable relationships with other European nations. This is not a matter of ‘remoaning’ or ‘rejoining’ but simply an acknowledgement that the majority of British voters would see that peaceful cooperation rather than further deliberate estrangement and the fanning of enmity is in our common interest.

The formation of a Progressive Alliance will take time but while it is coalescing there could be room for an informal pact for launching cooperation between aspiring member parties aimed at systematically exposing the foolishness of the government’s anti-European antics as soon as each new one is launched.

This could simply take the form of organising persistent questioning by representatives of each of the PA parties, focussed on getting the government to explain in simple terms why its action is so good for the average British citizen. Questioning in parliament, in the media, at constituency level, through social media and so on would be sustained until a credible explanation was given or the intended action was withdrawn. The public reaction to the government response would be tested through opinion polls that would help to shape future moves.

Informal coordination between opposition parties on this could help to build mutual confidence in the value of inter-party action and to create rising public support for a ‘normal’ neighbourly relationship with our nearest allies that would help Britain regain its good standing in the world.

If such a system for holding the government to account for any moves towards worsening relations with mainland Europe had been in place a month or two ago, we would probably still be pressing Johnson, day after day. for a plausible explanation of why it was in the interest of the average British citizen – and its fishermen – to send gunboats to Jersey. And he and his ministers would still be scratching the itches of their first gadfly bites when the next ones would strike.

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