It was all political symbolism yesterday, the place, the motto, the grand gesture. British Prime Minister #Boris_Johnson theatrically threw his eyes and hands up to the sky at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich – “a venue loaded with historic and symbolic references to Britain’s rich history as a maritime trading nation,” declared the Financial Times (which is itself full of historical references to the old maritime trading nation). “Unleashing Britain’s potential” was written in straightforward script on the lectern, above which the baroque angels are enjoying themselves high up on the ceiling.
We’re us – that was Johnson’s message
The message of the pictures was unambiguous: We are us. And the EU must finally understand this with this impressive sight and appearance.
Change of scenery, the stage on the same Monday is now the completely no-frills press room of the European Commission in Brussels. With sparse gestures and in matter-of-fact speech, #Michel_Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on the Brexit issue, explains the “Negotiations on EU-UK future partnership” until the end of the year in front of a canvas-sized display board. The pale-coloured calendar would have been a credit to any savings banks meeting.
No pathos – that was Barnier’s message
The message of the pictures was unambiguous: no pathos, no provocative gestures, for heaven’s sake, no demonstrative historical references or clear political cues.
Bauhaus meets baroque.
The arguments on both sides, however, were unwound quickly and routinely this Monday. Johnson wants Britain to have its own rules and nowhere else to be obliged to the EU: Barnier offers largely unhindered access to the EU internal market, provided that the UK complies with European standards.
So, it’s squaring the circle. We shall see who moves or does not move in the coming weeks and months.
Out of sight in Greenwich is little Ireland
In London in particular, the country that has the most to lose in this trial of strength – and nothing else will it be, the word partnership should not be taken at face value – has been lost sight of.
According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Ireland supplies around 11 percent of its exports to Great Britain, around 14 billion euros in 2018, and the British share of Irish imports is as high as 23 percent.
The Irish will elect a new parliament at the end of the week. Fine Gael, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s liberal party, is behind in polls.
So it’s all about money, power, the future. And it’s about British-Irish relations.
As a reminder: from the 12th century until the founding of the Free State in 1922, this was a relationship between the strong and the weak, between colonial rulers and colonized. Irish independence less than a century ago was the first sensitive blow to the Empire – which Johnson in Greenwich now celebrated with historic innocence and stupendous ruthlessness.
After all, unlike his hapless predecessor Theresa May, this prime minister has given Northern Ireland a special status in future negotiations. Let’s see what remains of it.
Ireland is now the second richest country in Europe – and happy
Barnier is thus not only negotiating the future partnership between the EU and the United Kingdom: On behalf of the EU, the Frenchman is also negotiating the future of an island which, unlike its neighbour, is firmly committed to the EU, where – “in 2018, Europe’s second richest country in the world in terms of gross domestic product per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) will be the fifth richest country in the world” (Wikipedia) – it has finally become free and successful, maybe even happy.
In the past, it would have been said that the EU had become a protective power for Ireland, even though Brussels cannot provide regiments but only legal protection and market security.
It is precisely this EU law, this European power that Britain does not want to bow to. The possible consequences will be borne not only by the British, but above all by the Irish, once again. Yesterday, at the imperial Greenwich meridian, this little green island in the Atlantic did not play a role. It did in the post-imperial Brussels press room.