Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 19:12

Sovereignty in Isolation: The UK and the West after Brexit

July 2016

The result of the June 23rd referendum on British membership of the EU was as unexpected in Britain as in continental Europe. Within 48 hours, it became clear that the leaders of the Leave campaign had no idea how to navigate the vortex of uncertainties that their victory had produced.1 Within a week, one of their most strident standard bearers, Boris Johnson, abandoned his prime ministerial ambitions with a whimper.

Yet since her virtual coronation as Prime Minister on July 13th, Theresa May has turned the page with élan and authority.  A subdued supporter of Remain in David Cameron’s government, Mrs. May has entrusted two died in the wool Eurosceptics with negotiating the parameters of a post-Brexit UK: David Davis (who now becomes Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union) and Liam Fox (the first Secretary of State for International Trade). Her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, though with a much diminished remit, dazed and dumbfounded nearly all.

By these means, Britain’s new prime minister has given force to her pledge that “Brexit means Brexit.”  But she has done so in a way that will oblige her Eurosceptic colleagues to share responsibility for terms of exit that are bound to disappoint a substantial block of their supporters in the country.  By giving Boris Johnson a post that forces him to improve his act, she has effectively neutralized him.  Those with a claim to “know better,” David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set,” have been put out of the way, and the most irreconcilable and treacherous of her former rivals, Michael Gove, has been banished.  With a few bold strokes, she has secured party unity on her own terms.

The critic’s charge is that she, like David Cameron, has put party unity ahead of the national interest. But a more considered assessment might be that, unlike David Cameron, she bears little responsibility for the referendum result, and she is right in her view that a strong government is needed to limit the inevitable disruption and damage that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will create.

But just how aware Prime Minister May is of the geopolitical implications of Brexit remains to be seen. Her predecessor, a onetime Eurosceptic, came to terms with these issues late in the day.  He and his Chancellor, George Osborne, conducted a campaign that was both narrow and negative.  In what became, in the words of Leave, “project fear,” the electorate was treated to a cascade of warnings about the economic costs of British withdrawal. The more lurid the suspiciously precise statistics became, the more sceptical the public grew about the government’s case and the more appealing became the leitmotifs of Brexit: “sovereignty” and “control.”  These nostrums were poorly contested; about security, Remain offered little beyond cliché. By insisting that “we” could veto this and “we” could veto that, Cameron reinforced the belief that “we” stood on one side and “they” on another. In essence, both Leave and Remain campaigned against the EU.

Time is likely to show that the gain in sovereignty promised by Brexit proponents will exact a disproportionate cost in terms of European and global influence. The case for Brexit rests on the assumption that Britain on its own can define its terms of its engagement with the outside world. It is an assumption based on a dated caricature of the EU and a misunderstanding about the sources of British influence. No matter how wisely the negotiations are conducted, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has the potential to damage the UK, Europe and the security of the West as a whole. In four respects, the perceptions of those who championed Brexit are out of kilter with reality.

Boris Johnson. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/ i-Images

First, the EU is not the mastodon widely portrayed by its opponents. In comparison to the period before its Eastern enlargements, it has become a different organism: diverse, irrepressibly pluralistic and on the cutting edge of elemental issues affecting Europe’s security and way of life. In all of these respects, but particularly the latter, the EU of today bears more comparison in its ideals and its challenges to the European project of Schuman, Monnet and Adenauer than to the ingrown, self-referential construction that fell into place following de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s entry in 1963. The ethos of dirigisme — not to say the ostentatious elitism exemplified by Giscard d’Estaing and Edward Heath — has not disappeared. But it has lost its dominance and until the referendum was firmly counterbalanced by the UK and a majority of Scandinavian and Central European member states. The “six” can issue declaration after declaration about political union and even a European army. But the former is no longer possible, and the latter never was. Within a common framework of values, rules and institutions (whose powers are limited as well as shared), the EU has become variable in its geometry, a marketplace of ideas and a union of nations that remained nations. It cannot be otherwise if it is to exist at all.

Second, whatever the pretensions of some and the nightmares of others, a European superstate there never was and cannot be. What kind of superstate could have tolerated the inbred pathologies that drove the Greek economy to ruin? Far from being a lesson in the hubris of EU “micro-management,” the Greek crisis is, amongst other things, a commentary on the ineffectiveness and lack of authority of EU institutions. For everyone, there is food for thought here, but it will only take place if the UK and EU discard dogma, Eurosceptic as well as Europhile. A moment’s reflection will show that the real divide is not between “new” and “old” Europe, pace Donald Rumsfeld, but between the competitive, meritocratic and fiduciary culture of one Europe and the paternalistic, syndicalist, populist and profligate economic culture of the other. Loosely speaking, it is a North-South, rather than East-West divide, but a divide it is (which in France cuts right across the polity and in Britain right across the Labour Party). It distinguishes those who, when presented with a bill, pay it and those who ask ‘where is your vision?’  (N.B. There is no contradiction between a fiduciary culture and a welfare state. Denmark has a comprehensive welfare system, but it is paid for – by one of the highest tax rates in Europe).


David Davis. Photograph:

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.