by Robert E. Hunter
The massive defeat for Brexit in the British Parliament by more than 200 votes means that the whole issue gets sent back to the drawing board. There are only 73 days before the magic moment when, on March 29, the UK is scheduled to depart from the European Union. But even that is no longer certain.
With the clock ticking, debate now continues in haste, with a wide range of alternatives to be considered.
Viewed from across the Atlantic, however, the entire Brexit debate seems to have taken place in a bubble, as though what the United Kingdom does won’t matter in the wider scheme of things, especially to the future of Europe but also to the United States and others.
Much has been said about the economic impact of Brexit on the 27 countries that will still belong to the EU. But what of other aspects of current UK associations abroad? On these key points, silence or at least avoidance has been the rule.
When it comes to European security, post-Brexit Britain will continue to be a dues-paying NATO member—spending just over the alliance’s goal of two percent of GDP on defense —and it will have one of the larger allied militaries, including two aircraft carriers. But a focus solely on military capabilities ignores the extent to which interconnections among EU nations, both institutional and informal, are essential to NATO’s ability to help protect Western interests. With Russia’s Vladimir Putin to deal with, Britain’s dropping out of these arrangements will be deeply unsettling. After their reformulation following the Cold War, NATO and the EU have necessarily complemented one another in reassuring others against things going wrong.
Further, once out of the EU, Britain will be less able to help regulate Franco-German relations and to insulate those EU states that don’t relish rule by either the Gang of One (Berlin) or the Gang of Two (Berlin and Paris). Meanwhile, Putin is paying close attention to British politics. He must be smiling on Westminster’s turmoil, hoping he will no longer have to deal with Britain as a strong geopolitical player in the web of relationships among West European states that supplement NATO in keeping his ambitions in check.
Britain’s ties to the Continent have long since been organic, with each part closely integrated with all the others. Pull at one string—Brexit in any form—and other parts of the skein will come loose. Nor is it reassuring to see how the British political establishment has been trying to make up its mind. By taking the most consequential decision in decades for the UK’s future in such a haphazard and almost comical way, the country’s leaders do not inspire confidence in their aptitude for governance.
In the United States, the corporate and financial sectors are already making arrangements for dealing with an independent Britain and the 28-minus-one EU and are evaluating where to place their bets. At the same time, Donald Trump and his team see Brexit as an opportunity to gain more leverage with the Continent, as well as with the UK, on the basis of divide and rule. Indeed, from 1961 when Harold Macmillan’s government first sought to join the European Economic Community (the EU’s predecessor), every U.S. administration has seen Britain as what the Gaullists accurately viewed it to be: an American Trojan horse. Following Brexit, Britain will lose its usefulness to Washington in that role.
When Trump is gone, certainly within six years, the U.S. ship of state could right itself. But Britain, once gone from the EU, will be gone forever. Already, as Americans look to long-term relations with Europe, deciding whether to focus on London or on Continental capitals and institutions is a no-brainer. Even with Britain fully engaged in NATO, Washington will see that the UK is not a major player in the whole-of-government approach to European security and stability. Thus, if there continues to be a “special relationship” across the Atlantic, it will be less and less with London.
The slogan “Global Britain” is the Brexiteers’ final delusion. With its ability to project some military power beyond its near-abroad, plus its long-standing diplomatic and economic engagements in the Middle East, Britain could still contribute there. But farther afield, its ability to be useful to broader Western interests will be limited. As the United States necessarily pays more attention to the Far East, notably a rising China, there will be roles for Europeans to play. But the focus will be essentially on private-sector and non-military instruments and institutions, possibly with the EU but not individual states such as Britain.
If Britain does leave the EU, through ways and means that are not at all clear, it will perforce punch well below its inherent weight. It will retain elements of economic and military power, but with much diminished influence. After more than 50 years of searching, the UK still hasn’t come up with an answer to former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s jibe that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” Brexit only confirms Acheson’s judgment.