Sovereignty in Isolation: The UK and the West after Brexit

July 2016
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Third, “Britain in Europe” did not diminish Britain’s potential. To the contrary, it has added value to Europe and thereby to Britain itself. As it has done often throughout its history, the UK preserved the European balance or corrected it. For Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, it is the UK, not France, that has been Germany’s ally of choice. With the UK, Germany has been able to play its role as the bulwark of fiduciary Europe and reinforce the proponents of sound finance in France, Italy and Spain. Without the UK by Germany’s side, the ship will list. A British voice has also made a difference in those places (e.g. Warsaw, Budapest or Athens, not to say Istanbul or Kyiv) where a German voice has aroused resentment. In all matters of EU competence with a security dimension (see below), the UK has been a critical, often pivotal player, stiffening backbones, reinforcing confidence and calming nerves. From the start of the enlargement process to the first mooting of Brexit, the UK not only “punched above its weight” in European councils, it drove agendas, firmed up coalitions and blocked a good deal of nonsense. Surely, this did not diminish Britain or damage its interests.

Fourth, it is spurious to say that the security of the West rests on NATO and NATO alone. For one thing, NATO does not agree. Defence and deterrence have been redefined, latterly (since 2014) in Europe itself, and NATO is keeping pace with these changes. But NATO remains a hard power animal. Well before we were presented with the challenge of “hybrid war,” we found ourselves confronting security issues – energy supply, trans-national crime, financial regulation, and the securitization of culture and information – where NATO has little to contribute. NATO membership for the Višegrad countries and the Baltic states offers a guarantee of defence against ultimate threats and provides a baseline of political confidence. But it is the EU that has integrated these states into European markets and the institutions of liberal democracy. It is the EU, not NATO, that takes the lead on security sector reform (security, counter-intelligence, police), that funds critical infrastructure development and helps new democracies strengthen institutional capacity against penetration by Russia’s mega-economic actors, security services and “humanitarian” foundations. In many of these spheres, the UK has been a key participant; in others it has led the way. Nobody’s security will benefit from the diminution of these ties.

On one point the United States and Russia are in firm agreement. The UK is a force multiplier in the EU and a pillar of Atlanticism inside it. It is as a European power that Britain has strengthened Atlanticism. With Britain outside, the Atlanticist impulse will weaken, and other impulses will make themselves felt. On 9 June, the French Senate declared overwhelmingly (302-16) that relations with Russia, “confiantes et solides” are “indispensable,” and the sentiment is strongly echoed within Sigmar Gabriel’s SPD, not to say the Kremlin. For many Brexiteers, the “special relationship” is an article of faith, but for many in Washington, it has a more dispassionate and instrumental importance. Post-Brexit, a special relationship will survive in defence and, certainly, intelligence. But the UK’s withdrawal from the EU signifies a decline of US influence in Europe, and it is not clear that Anglo-American relations will benefit.

What, then, are the consequences likely to be? It would be cavalier to dismiss the uncertainties ahead.  There is only one certainty. The UK’s official status will not change until Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is invoked “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” Constitutionally, Parliament is sovereign in the UK. The people are not. But Cameron’s government promised a binding referendum, not an advisory one, and Parliament consented, passing the European Union Referendum Act in December 2015. In constitutional terms, Parliament has already endorsed the referendum verdict. Prime Minister May has wisely said that Article 50 will not be invoked until the new year. But its invocation is a near certainty. Once invoked, it is most unlikely that the act will be undone.

The sequel to Article 50’s invocation will be a prolonged negotiation over the terms of British withdrawal.  That negotiation is most unlikely to take place with a monolithic European Union.  The wishes of an influential core of European players to secure a clean and swift divorce are already being opposed by a number of others, not least Angela Merkel.  Behind these differences are more submerged divisions over the scope, depth and pace of European integration, not to say the geographical limits of “Europe”. The Brexit negotiation can be expected to bring these divisions to the surface. At worst, it could strengthen other centrifugal tendencies in the EU that already arouse concern and despondency. At best, it could lay the ground for a more concentric geometry of European integration that would not only revise Britain’s terms of engagement, but Norway’s and Switzerland’s as well. But that is for the long term. In the short term, we are likely to see confusion and stress.

However the process develops, it will take little time to expose the vision of the Brexiteers as a sham. The Siren song of Brexit was that, outside the EU, Britain could maintain the free trade provisions of the Single Market without its regulatory provisions (EU “red tape”) and without free movement of labor. Sooner rather than later, the UK will find that it confronts a Hobson’s choice:  a “sovereign” Britain paying the EU external tariff – with all the adverse consequences that this will have for inward investment – or Single Market benefits with Single Market obligations, but without a member’s right to shape the rules that it must observe. Under the stewardship of Theresa May (who is well respected in Europe) Britain’s economic weight should allow it to negotiate a softer Hobson’s choice, with better terms than Norway (which incorporates 80 percent of EU regulations into its domestic legislation). But “benefits without obligations” is not an option, and any substantial compromise will entail a substantial dilution of core Brexit principles.

What are the consequences for Europe’s security likely to be? The least likely outcomes are a “federal Europe” or a German-Russian condominium. The more probable result will be a misery and a mess. No state or combination of states will find it easy to prevent lines of tension turning into cleavages. Restraints on extreme forms of national and economic “protection” are bound to wane. The risk is that disintegration will progress de facto, even if integration proceeds de jure.

In this setting, Russia, ever at ease with instability, will plot and profit. But the Kremlin is hardly going to be, pace Stalin, “dizzy with success.” Brexit is not an unalloyed blessing for Russia’s elites. Quite a number of Russian oligarchs have made a strategic investment in the British economy, believing they were gaining advantage (and immunity) in the European economy as well. Yet since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Vladimir Putin has bestowed favor on the tribunes of home-based capital (hydrocarbons, railways, defense) rather than those who sought reward and refuge in the global market. The concerns of the defense establishment are more adamantine and compelling: that a weaker EU will play to the advantage of NATO. To all appearances, the NATO Warsaw summit follows this script.

Yet as any good Leninist knows, history advances “one step forward, two steps back.” But it advances. Despite their assiduous exploitation of contradiction and division, Kremlin policymakers never entirely lost their conviction that NATO and the EU were governed by the same American nervous system. Their determined cultivation of European business during the years of Brezhnevian “détente”, Gorbachevian “new thinking” and post-Cold War “strategic partnership” diminished this neuralgia, but EU enlargement revived it even before the Eastern Partnership brought it to fever pitch. Russia’s brutal pressure on Ukraine and Armenia to abandon their quest for EU Association Agreements was applied against a non-bloc state and a member of CSTO respectively. Europe’s Common Security and Defense Policy (which, to the surprise of its most zealous adherents and opponents, brought the EU and NATO closer together) only reinforced Russia’s view that EU and NATO enlargement were two emanations of a common encroachment upon its geopolitical and “civilizational” space.

March for Europe in London, July 2, 2016. Photograph:

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will remove that apprehension, along with many of the linkages that make “the West” a meaningful term. Preoccupied by Brexit and its own future, the odds are that EU attentiveness towards Ukraine and other vulnerable neighbors will slip, that its unified stance on sanctions will be ever more tenuous, that enlargement policy will be consigned to the archives, whilst the temptation to seek “normalization” with Russia will increase.  The dilemma for the Kremlin is whether to sit back and enjoy the fruits of EU introversion (and its possible disintegration) or use the moment to strike a decisive blow against European “partnerships” and a “bankrupt”, “corrupted” Ukrainian state.2 In the post-Brexit world, the EU’s ability to influence this choice is almost certain to decline.

Yet as Russia’s military establishment is all too aware, the wild card in this matrix is NATO. Were Sweden and Finland, on the basis of the foregoing conclusions, to chart a path towards NATO membership, the Kremlin’s calculations would be thrown into reverse.  Whilst the NATO Warsaw Summit Communiqué did not go this far, its language is nonetheless suggestive:

[S]ince 2014, the Alliance has developed mutually beneficial partnership relations with Finland and Sweden on a broad range of issues. We appreciate the significant contributions of Finland and Sweden to NATO-led operations. We are dedicated to the continuous process of further strengthening our cooperation with these enhanced opportunities partners, including through regular political consultations, shared situational awareness, and joint exercises, in order to respond to common challenges in a timely and effective manner.3

Yet more suggestive is the fact that, on these points, NATO’s Wales Summit Declaration (September 2014) said nothing at all.

Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO is conjecture and, however realistic, distant.  The challenges posed by Brexit are imminent. Whilst they are unlikely to be catastrophic, they do weaken the West at a time of deep geopolitical uncertainty. Whatever the ultimate outlook might be, few dispute that in the near-to-mid term they will have a negative impact on Britain’s economy and Europe’s as well. That Britain, shorn of EU regulation and “common policy,” will enhance its own position in the world is arguably the most fanciful claim of Brexit’s supporters. The opposite is far more likely to be the case. Deprived of “bloc” negotiating power, the UK will be forced into an ever more commercialized foreign policy, geopolitically myopic and self-deterring, for fear of offending those upon whom trade deals and foreign investment are sought. Defense spending, once again on the rise, is likely to come under renewed pressure as growth declines and budgets become tighter. Far from “punching above its weight,” Britain will find itself weighted down by the need to navigate the world’s economic shoals on its own.

Since the launch of the Brexit campaign, its leaders have asked the country to “have faith in Britain.”  What they meant was “have no faith in others.” This is a dispiriting “faith”, based on a misreading of history as much as the contemporary world. “Splendid isolation” is not an option in today’s world. Even at its imperial apogee, the UK abandoned it whenever a major threat appeared on the continent. Real isolation (1940) was “our finest hour,” but it did not come about by choice, and we were pleased by 1941 to find ourselves with allies. Today we need allies on the soft and unconventional security issues as much as on the hard and tangible ones.

Britain’s strength derives from the power it exercises in combination with others and the good will that arises when it does so. Whether good will and usable power can be reconstituted in a post-Brexit world remains to be seen. But even if it can, the enterprise will demand more tenacity and wisdom from us than we have shown of late.

  • 1.The driving force behind the campaign to leave the EU, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, campaigned on its own rather than within the official Vote Leave campaign, which was dominated by disaffected figures associated with the governing Conservative Party.
  • 2.Sergey Naryshkin, <Naryshkin rasskazal o perspektivakh Ukrainy v voyne s Rossiey>, In the same interview, Naryshkin opines that in any serious military action, Ukraine’s armed forces would be unable to continue beyond five days.
  • 3.Warsaw Summit Communiqué, 8-9 July 2016, Pt 23, para 2.


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