UK & Europe 2021 : Highlights and Lowlights

It’s a privilege as Dean International to reflect on some of the key political challenges that have arisen across 2021 here in the UK and across Europe, as well as reviewing key developments that we’ve undertaken in the University of Surrey.

Covid & National Governments: The Politics of Crisis

In tackling the second year of Covid-19, governments has begun to go their own way. But in doing so, one can see patterns that really marked out 2021, the most prominent of which was the increasing preference of following public opinion. This is turn was governments pushing back on widespread and stringent restrictions, on the basis that most populations are deeply frustrated at the majority of constraints to social and economic activities, and may not countenance further forms of lockdown.

Fewer national and regional constraints means increased personal restrictions, from mask wearing to showing Covid passes. These have proved tough to enforce due to public fatigue with ever-changing government health policies. More interesting is the sense among many that a broader shift of attitude is now needed in accepting Covid as endemic to the second decade of the 21st century, rather than a pandemic that marked out 2020-2021. For others, Covid-related restrictions are still too little, too late, a negligible response to preventing ongoing infection, reinfection, loss of life, as well as the wider cost of livelihoods and wellbeing.

Behavioural Shifts? Facing Covid and Climate Change

In addition to Covid-19, particular forms of behaviour among populations and governments have also impacted how we manage climate change. Here too, the majority of governments are plumping for policies on the basis of public opinion and the limits of public acceptance, rather than what is actually needed in material terms to respond sufficiently to protect both lives and the planet.

2021 has been exceptional in demonstrating markedly wide altitudinal shifts in two key areas. With both climate change and Covid-19, society’s behaviour  – and the responses of government –  has swung back and forth between wholesale compliance with the strictest of rules, to full-blown rebellion in attempting to overthrow or subvert them, with every shade in between. This too, is both understandable and predictable. Within polities, within communities, eve within families, as humans we seek out and establish forms of personal security, and wider societal stability. Covid and climate change alike has placed us – individually and collectively – only a few steps away from crisis mode in terms both ecological and epidemiological. While governments and individuals alike are capable of switching to crisis management mode, actually living with crisis in the medium-term (or indeed permanently) isn’t something that either governments or societies in affluent and industrialised states has had to do in the 21st century. Many other populations sadly, know this state of existential flux all too well.  

2022 therefore will be as much about reconfiguring social attitudes as much as aptitudes to use cutting-edge immunology, vaccinology, and virology to fight back against the next Covid challenges, as well as getting to grips with the implications for climate change, now that the dust from COP26 has begun to settle.  

The Ups and Downs of Brexit

What about Brexit? Given the torrid impact of Covid, I’m tempted to say ‘come back, Brexit all is forgiven’! Except of course Brexit hasn’t gone anywhere. I recently put together an end-of-year round-up for Political Insight of the impact on Northern Ireland, and broader EU-UK relations, remarking in tongue-in-cheek fashion that Brexit spats have become something of a Christmas tradition.  From vaccination spats to iconic British sausages, from arguments with France over fishing rights to the political volatility created by the sheer complexity of border controls between Britain, Northern Ireland, France, and the EU more widely, Brexit has had a very tough first year.

Frost Departs, Thaw Ensues?

Rather than rehash the ups and downs of 2021, let’s look at the most interesting recent news, namely the departure of Lord David Frost as the UK’s Brexit minister, his replacement by Secretary of State Liz Truss, and the subsuming of Brexit issues overall within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

This is an interesting turn of events. Will Frost’s departure – as the Centre for European Reform suggests – help ice melt across the channel? For some, this shift heralds a change of attitude that could make a real difference. First, Frost heavily influenced Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the latter’s approach to Brexit, cultivating a confrontational, fractious, and disputatious attitude to the EU that produced few if any decent outcomes. As chief Brexit negotiator since June 2019, Frost has held sway over the PM, the Cabinet, even Parliament, and the various structures by which Brexit was managed from within Whitehall. Like Johnson himself, as well as many Conservative MPs from within the European Research Group (ERG), Frost was well-known for two things: his staunch advocacy for a hard Brexit, and his preference to achieve that outcome via “the ‘thump’em’ school of diplomacy, believing that acting tough gets better results”, having criticized former PM Theresa May’s attempted Brexit deals as too accommodative.

The ‘Thump ‘Em School of Diplomacy

Rather than a cooperative partnership resting on myriad, viable links between the UK and EU, 2021 has illustrated how tough Frost’s preferences for a ‘sovereignty-first’ Brexit have been to implement in practice. Based on policies that could be ‘taken back’, this stance prioritized UK latitude in trade, standards and regulations, and comes at the expense of retaining the vestiges of good will so vital to actually make the deal actually work on a daily basis. Frost encouraged unilateral approaches to various deadlines in 2021, narrowing the scope for diplomatic cooperation in key areas, including the Northern Ireland protocol. For some, Frost’s bullish attitude – including continually threatening to renounce the protocol altogether – produced results, including the proposals made in October by the European Commission to alter and enhance key logistical bottlenecks arising from the protocol’s implementation.  

For others, including EU negotiators, Irish officials, and all manner of cross-border businesses Frost’s belligerence appears to have sealed his fate. Whether comparing Brexit as awaking from the ‘long bad dream’ of membership within the EU, or failing to use basic diplomatic skills with Maroš Šefčovič, the EU commissioner now responsible for Brexit to ensure trust and produce viable outcomes, Frost became an increasingly unwelcome visitor in the halls of Brussels. Unlike Michael Gove, who managed to cultivate working relationships between London, Brussels, Dublin, Belfast and beyond, and made clear the central role of the peace process in doing so, Frost raised the profile of Unionist concerns but only through combative rather than consensual avenues, which significantly worsened political tension and did nothing to lessen the actual problem of post-based regulatory frictions over the import and export of key goods.

Ultimately, Frost’s opposition to overweening regulations of any kind set him at odds with the various new requirements to ensure post-Brexit relations remain workable, as well as upcoming carbon neutral regulations, and even various Covid-related requirements. This places him in an interesting position, not only alongside “many of the most right-wing Tory MPs, who tend to want not only a hard Brexit, but also minimal COVID-19 restrictions, lower taxes and less onerous rules on carbon emissions”, but – in London at least – still “among the most popular of ministers”.

Trussed and Ready

Where does this leave Liz Truss? Now enjoying something of a popularity bounce within the Conservative Party, the new Foreign Secretary will amalgamate Brexit within the contours of UK foreign policy. For many, this suggests improved diplomatic relations with the EU, placing UK-EU relations on more sturdy bilateral footing by ensuring that the externalities of the UK as a non-member do not outflank new opportunities for realigned relations. Bringing a portfolio of high-level trade-based negotiating skills with third parties as Trade Secretary, her approach will doubtless be less combative, but still tough. Having moved pragmatically from her former Remain status to leveraging the ‘Global Britain’ brand to cultivate a string of new UK trade deals, Truss has two key challenges: distancing herself from the crumbling authority of Johnson’s personal leadership as PM, and reworking a more judicious, diplomatic approach with the EU enabling better practical outcomes for the UK in 2022, but without being seen to cede anything to Brussels in the eyes of her Tory counterparts.

If 2021 saw the failure of the crash-bang-wallop approach to Brexit management, 2022 may witness the positives on offer from friendlier, more considerate methods. Frost is out, and Johnson is absent the leverage (or focus) for further foolish fights with Brussels, none of which would remotely benefit the UK either materially or diplomatically. Endangering the 2020 UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) by invoking Article 16, starting a trade war, worsening relations with France, Germany, and the wider EU including serious security and defence issues, jeopardizing the fragile relations with both Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, undermining businesses, and reducing the ability of all concerned to work beyond the ongoing strictures of Covid… none of these ought to be remotely appetizing for the British government, or Truss herself. I would expect Truss to lead on rebuilding bridges with the key partners, identifying a critical path to more effective post-Brexit relations in all key issues, from a work-around regarding the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to increased licenses for French fishing boats, from genuinely improved governance of the Northern Ireland protocol to the critically overdue institutionalisation of formal diplomatic relations between the UK and the EU.

European Progress?

The key stories from the EU for 2021 ranged from Covid spats in the early spring, to COP26 approaches, to the recent fallout with Belarus and Russia on the complicated issue of migration. As I explored earlier in the year, vac spats beset the first few months of 2021, sewing further discontent between the EU and the UK on the issues of vaccine availability and distribution, including the thorny issue of export/import across newly delineated EU/UK borders. Solutions were eventually found, making space for the both climate change and Covid within Europe’s own debating chambers. Both will undoubtedly dominate in 2022, though the EU has perhaps gone farther than others in identifying financial incentives by which to tackle both recovery and climate governance simultaneously. The prime example of this are the ‘Fit for 55’ climate laws package in which the EU will attempt to “deepen progress on the green files while grappling with the mobility impact of the resurgent virus”.

Aiming to reduce emissions by 2030 by 55% (compared to 1990 levels), Fit for 55 have helped push the EU towards new collective thresholds of climate responsibilities, will revealing rival approaches to climate change between Member States, and across the multi-hued groups in the European Parliament.  The devil will be I the details, as legislative packages are typically corralled together, requiring significant changes in CO2 emission standards for heavy-duty vehicles, and a new framework to harmonise the specific measurements of both transport and logistics emissions, as well as overhauling the fiendishly complex modalities by which passenger data is collected prior to flying. All well and good, but the approach remains fundamentally uneven. While many of these initiatives will make a difference in supporting industry and citizens alike to think and act green on a more permanent basis, there are key programmes that need to be decarbonised, including the EU’s beloved mobility programme, Erasmus+.

From Russia, With No Love Lost

Most prominent throughout 2021 were the increasingly bitter relations between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US. With steadily increasing Russian hardware massed around key border points, US, UK and European states alike feared the likelihood of a Russian invasion of another chunk of Ukraine. As will be remembered, Russia continues to occupy Ukrainian territory within the Crimean peninsula, and is now accused of provoking a “separatist pro-Moscow rebellion in the industrial east of the country”. Western capitals insist on the need to reduce Moscow’s sphere of geopolitical influence, while Putin in turn rejects both this approach and the specifics of any plans to attack the Ukraine, insisting that any troop accumulations and movements are geared at defending Russia itself against an impinging Western military alliance.

The tension was further increased after Putin pushed back still further by releasing a barrage of far-reaching security and geopolitical demands to various Western countries, the most provocative of which forbids Ukraine from joining NATO. In addition to the diplomatic contretemps that has arisen, the more predictable response from Europe and the US has been the threat to increase the current series of economic sanctions and/or instigate a new set, while ensuring that Ukraine’s rights are part of any emerging deal. Indeed, US President Biden has been particularly clear on this point, insisting that America’s preference for sorting out the fracas are the twin tracks of “deterrence and diplomacy”, brought together not only on supporting Ukraine’s sovereign rights but on the consequences Russia would face if it moves on Ukraine”.

November and December saw border tensions flare up in new and awful ways, with the Belorussian government actively enticing migrants from and beyond the Middle East to cross the shared border with Poland, thereby provoke a standoff with the EU. The use of migrants as geopolitical pawns is not new, but it marks a new low for the EU’s attempt to find authentic and viable solutions for this pressing crisis.  Closer to home, the EU also needs to work harder at putting its own house in order. Ongoing governance infractions in Hungary, and Poland remain largely unanswered. The closest the European Commission has come in 2021 to dealing with these ongoing normative slippages is to finally launch an infringement procedure against Poland over rulings that attempt to challenge the primacy of EU law over national law.

Home & Away: Bringing the International to the University of Surrey

So where does that leave the University of Surrey? We’ve spent 2021 working hard on using a number of important tools to raise the visibility of all things international in the eyes of our students, staff, and partners. From a teaching and learning perspective, the Curriculum Design Review that kicked off in 2021 affords every school and department the opportunity to overhaul cardinal programme-level goals, including ‘global and cultural intelligence’, allowing programme directors and module leaders alike the chance to reflect on key international insights and approaches that can be brought into the classroom to boost the soft skill set of our students. While Covid continues to wreak havoc to our ability to plan effectively, we can at least ensure that we can be ‘international at home’. One of the very best ways in which to do so is through increased use of COIL projects – Collaborative Online International Learning – allowing our students to interact with and learn from their counterparts at our various partner universities around the world.

This year, we pioneered a few of these at the undergrad level, while continuing our heritage of seeing dimensions of COIL underwrite some of our doctoral programmes. I’m excited about the opportunity to see these develop and progress in 2022, in ways that both stretch our pedagogic approach in the classroom, as well as challenging us to think ambitiously about digital delivery modes that could help COIL flourish further.  2021 also saw a big win for us on the mobility front, having been awarded £1.7 million to support international mobility opportunities for the widest range of undergraduate, postgraduate and alumni students, including a long- overdue opportunity to support students representing widening participation needs.

Externally, our links with key international universities resembles more than just a network, or series of ad hoc agreements, but a strategic community of high quality, research-active centres of learning, which recognises in Surrey, what we see in them: trusted global friends, striving to provide unparalleled research and learning opportunities for students and staff. Here, our central role in the UGPN – University Global Partnership Network – allows us to leave a global footprint in key areas, from our multilateral interaction across four continents to cutting-edge research. I’m particularly excited about our 2nd annual online conference, entitled ‘How can UGPN make a difference to sustainability research and education?’ running 14-22 March 2022!

2022 will bring its fair share of challenges, to be sure, but I have no doubt that we are up to the challenge.