Much has been written about the economic damage that Brexit is already beginning to do to the British economy and the longer-term damage that can be expected. In the last week, we have also begun to glimpse the geo-political price that it will exact.
EU nations were quick to show solidarity with a fellow member state over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, but the unspoken words were that this was an attack on a country who is a member state – for now. And whilst the Prime Minister and other politicians talked of seeking support from the EU and its members the inevitable reality is that British influence on, for example, the already divisive issue within the EU of sanctions against Russia is far more limited now and post-Brexit will disappear. That disappearance will also have implications for other foreign policy disputes, such as those over Gibraltar or the Falklands. The EU position on these and other issues will in future not be influenced by Britain and will not necessarily be supportive of Britain.
By contrast, the US reaction to the attack was slow, initially confused and, from Trump, equivocal. The sacking of Rex Tillerson may not have been, as some suggested, a reaction to his robust statement in support of the UK just hours before; but at the very least it showed that Trump cared nothing whatsoever for the damage done to Britain by this timing. And although the US position has becoming considerably harder in the last few days the reality is that Trump doesn’t offer reliable support partly, in relation to the present crisis, because of ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia; but in any case, because of his capricious and unpredictable nature. The idea that he was going to be a great friend to Brexit Britain because of his brief chumminess with Nigel Farage was always a fantasy.
At the same time, both in relation to Trump’s new policy on steel and aluminium tariffs and, for that matter, the Iranian nuclear deal, the divisions between the EU and the US are becoming greater and in the process exposing the incoherence of Brexit. On both of those (and other) issues it is clear that British interests align with the EU, and require EU heft to be pursued. Britain is stuck between the two, with waning influence on each of them. Crucially, even if and when a more conventional administration emerges in the US it will not help matters. Prior to Trump and presumably afterwards the standard US view is that UK membership of the EU is vital, and it gave the UK a particular transatlantic bridging role which will be lost forever after Brexit. This was clearly spelled out by numerous senior American politicians prior to the Referendum.
Brexiters’ standard response to these kinds of issues is to say that security is nothing to do with EU membership and everything to do with NATO. That response is deeply flawed, even leaving aside the current issues of Trump’s ambivalent attitude to NATO. Firstly, the EU and NATO are now inter-related in ever more deep and complex ways. Britain, as a NATO member, will continue to be part of that relationship but will no longer be pivotal to it. Secondly, security is about far more than military issues, but rather a spectrum of diplomatic and economic capacities. Again, the Iranian nuclear deal and the sanctions against Russia are examples of the EU’s role in such security. And beyond this, of course, are issues about security in the sense of policing and intelligence co-operation. The reality is that it is not possible to separate out as discrete elements military, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, policing etc. They are all connected together as aspects of geo-political relationships.
In so far as Britain has a strategy to address any of this it goes under the slogan ‘Global Britain’. But that was effectively dismissed as meaningless in a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report this week except to the extent that British foreign policy has always had a global focus, and the report pointed out that the failure to secure a British seat on the International Court of Justice for the first time since 1946 was hardly a ringing endorsement of the strategy. For that matter, the relentless hostility to immigration shown by the government scarcely speaks of a global vision. And Brexit itself has already led to reductions in Britain’s diplomatic presence outside the EU in order to bolster the staffing in EU countries (this, in turn, reflecting the misguided idea that Brexit can be negotiated bi-laterally with member states rather than with the EU-27 en bloc).
Meanwhile this week saw what should, but probably won’t, put an end to Brexiters’ fantasy about the Commonwealth as the basis for future trade. This was always, indeed, a fantasy (the Commonwealth explicitly has never been a trade project; many of its members already have deals with the EU or are developing them; many of them are members of their own regional trade groupings; and none of them has an appetite for the neo-colonial implications of the Brexiters’ dreams) but was made so unequivocally explicit this week that even the rabidly pro-Brexit Express had to report it although the readers’ comments beneath suggest that the message still has not sunk in with Brexiters. The still occasionally heard CANZUK fantasy is even more absurd.
That Britain doesn’t have a workable strategy for foreign policy post-Brexit is in any case not surprising considering who holds the post of Foreign Secretary. No one seriously thinks that Boris Johnson is the best person for the job. He has it solely and simply as an artefact of the domestic politics of Brexit, another small price we are already paying. There can surely never have been a less statesmanlike holder of this office and he is held in contempt in many foreign capitals, especially in European countries given his long record of mendacity about the EU going back to his time as a journalist. That can hardly be an asset when, as at present, the message he is carrying is a request to trust him in saying that there is strong evidence that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent attack.
I’m not suggesting (as some of the angry responses to my recent tweets on this subject imagine me to be) that the Salisbury attack happened as a result of Brexit. That’s not my point, although some, including the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, have made it. I’m arguing that responding to the attack gives an early, partial taste of what post-Brexit geo-politics are going to be like. Brexit won’t make such politics impossible, nor will it make Britain completely friendless: support has indeed been garnered for the British response. It will just make everything more difficult by jettisoning the carefully crafted role that Britain had carved out for itself in recent decades as a node between the major global institutions and a key shaper of its own continent. Yesterday the Prime Minister spoke of having sought support for Britain by taking its grievance to the UN, NATO and the EU, piling layer after layer of pressure. After Brexit, the third of these layers won’t be available.
The effect won’t be immediate or dramatic, just a gradual leaching away status and influence in the world. Against that loss, there is precisely zero geo-political benefit of Brexit: it is all downside. Nor, unlike the economic consequences, is this something that can be mitigated by soft rather than hard Brexit. Both are equally damaging. On the other hand, a no deal Brexit in which Britain walked out of its international obligations, perhaps even reneging on the phase 1 agreement, as some Ultras repeatedly urge would make the geo-political damage catastrophically worse by completely shredding Britain’s reputation as a reliable international partner.
Yet it is a huge irony that Brexit does give Britain one very strong card in dealing with Russian aggression. If we really wanted to do something in response to Salisbury that would pain Russia rather more than the slightly peculiar call to “go away and shut up” we could abandon Brexit altogether, since in isolating Britain and weakening the EU it is, as Rafael Behr argued last year, Putin’s dream policy.🔷
(This piece was first published on The Brexit Blog.)