Ask a Danish journalist in London what he makes of today’s UK and he points at the UK government’s lack of trust for its own civil service and the extraordinary centralisation of policy to the boys in No ten – who surely don’t have the competence or expertise to deal with their ever-increasing powers.

Ask an Irish journalist in Brussels, and she comments on Irish sympathies for Scottish independence but also underlines Ireland’s concerns about the stability of its bigger neighbour, the UK. Ask a Polish barista in Edinburgh for a different view, and the immediate answer is the UK offers opportunities and freedom – swiftly followed by concerns about settled status and reflections on other, more attractive European countries.

What links all these viewpoints is not just the self-harm the UK appears to keep investing in – Brexit, the late Covid-19 lockdown, the alienation of Scotland and the undermining of its civil service. Above all, it is the uncertainty and unpredictability of Boris Johnson’s government at home and abroad.

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For now, the EU’s focus is on the Brexit talks and the rather basic deal that may emerge this autumn. But the UK will not disappear at the end of 2020. Rather, it will be a potentially awkward, capricious, third country neighbour – one that cannot simply be ignored.

The EU has, of course, plenty of experience of dealing with a range of neighbours, some constructive, others distinctly awkward or worse – from Russia to Ukraine to Turkey, the Western Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East. But the UK’s combination of studied, deliberate decline and an absence of clear strategic outlook on its future European and global relations is a concern for the EU.

Does Boris Johnson have a foreign policy beyond the yet to be defined unicorn mirage of ‘global Britain’? The UK has shown little interest, in the Brexit talks, in building on the intentions of the EU-UK political declaration to engage in structured foreign policy dialogue and cooperation. Johnson launched an ‘integrated review’ of UK foreign policy in February but so far the UK’s global strategy is mostly striking in its absence.

The UK government has moved to subsume the department for international development into the Foreign Office, undermining its focus on tackling poverty. And there are noises about a ‘D10’ group of democracies around securing 5G technology – adding Australia, South Korea and India to the G7 nations.

But, overall, the UK’s future political and diplomatic strategy towards the EU, and its 27 states, is completely unclear. The negative mantra of regaining sovereignty (never lost) from the EU is a domestic sound bite, not a serious European policy.

The EU certainly has plenty of other challenges to occupy itself with than the UK – from climate change, to Covid-19 to all its other unruly neighbours. But in a turbulent world, a decent, strategic relationship with the UK would, despite the damage of Brexit, be welcome. The UK has cut itself adrift at a time of geopolitical instability, its influence much weakened. But it remains in the G7, for now on the UN Security Council, and in NATO.

Still EU states are not about to be supplicants, desperately seeking the UK’s friendship. On the contrary, some of the UK’s closest allies in the EU – Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Portugal amongst others – have focused post-Brexit on replacing the UK with deeper, broader alliances across the EU’s 27 member states.

Meanwhile, the UK is on the sidelines, no longer one of the EU’s ‘big three, while in response to the Covid crisis, the Franco-German relationship has bounced out of the doldrums and into a tougher leadership stance. Yet all these states are still open to re-igniting a decent political and diplomatic relationship with the UK. But they’re not sure if the UK is interested or ready yet strategically or politically.

Uncertainty rules – and the UK’s fracturing democracy is watched with concern. The EU prefers cooperative and stable neighbours to problematic ones but it has little influence right now on the UK’s rather populist path.

At first glance, none of this looks good for Scotland. The Scottish government has a European strategy of sorts, aiming to maintain and strengthen links with EU states – and civil society – despite Brexit. But the weaker and more patchy the UK’s future relations are with the EU, the harder it will be for Scotland to build constructive European relationships.

Perhaps this is more promising for those who support independence? A pro-EU Scotland voted ‘remain’ in 2016, and its politics on the whole look more normal than the UK’s (though ‘normal’ may not describe last week’s events in both the Scottish Tories and the SNP). Some in the independence camp argue that the EU, in the face of a pro-European Scotland, and a shambolic, unstable UK, will or should be more supportive of Scottish independence.

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But this is mostly rather wishful-thinking. Foreign policy is a hard-nosed, complex business. There is sympathy in EU capitals towards Scotland’s unwilling exit from the EU, but that is matched with concern at the UK’s potential fragmentation. France’s relationship with the UK may always have been both rivalrous and cooperative, but in the end the Franco-British security relationship is important to Paris. The Dutch also look with concern at the UK’s current uncertain state – and like France tend to be lukewarm on the accession of new states to the EU.

What the pro-independence side needs to understand is that sympathy per se is not a key driver of EU foreign policy, and that the UK’s fragmenting state is seen more as cause for alarm than welcome news. The EU would like a strategic, democratic, stable and predictable UK to deal with.

Still, that’s not on offer right now. And so the more Scotland looks like a relatively normal, north European democracy, one that builds good relations with its EU neighbours, the more understanding there will be if the UK’s currently unstable path results in the end in an independent Scotland asking to re-join the EU.