“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own
British voters' decision to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the costs of departure are being felt first on the foreign-policy front. The international response to the recent nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, suggests that the costs will be high.
LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally had a good crisis. Responding to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the placid market town of Salisbury, England, May projected strength – including to her fellow European leaders – by demanding that the Kremlin answer for the crime. As a former home secretary, security is clearly her strong suit, and she has now gone a long way toward repairing her tattered authority in Parliament.
Moreover, May also managed to reach an agreement with European Union negotiators on a 21-month transition period for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the bloc. And yet, despite May’s personal successes, this week might well be remembered as the moment when the foreign-policy costs of Brexit became clear.
Until now, the British foreign-policy grandees and former ambassadors warning that Brexit will severely damage the UK’s standing in the world have been dismissed by much of the public as discredited elites and fear-mongers. Understandably, Brexit supporters have taken little notice of various straws in the wind heralding the direction their country will take. They are unmoved, for example, by the fact that, after losing a United Nations vote, their candidate pulled out of the race and the UK now has no judges seated at the International Court of Justice for the first time in 71 years.
Still, if that wasn’t enough to reveal Britain’s new loneliness, the use of a Soviet-era nerve agent on British soil certainly is. Though EU members have expressed their support for Britain and made assurances that Brexit will not disrupt solidarity or security, there are signs that this united front may, in fact, be just a front. The European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election to a fourth term – a move that rankled the UK. Greece and others also expressed some skepticism about the relationship with the UK as they arrived in Brussels for the European Council summit.
Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump also congratulated Putin. While he also condemned Russia for the Salisbury incident – a rare departure from the Putin-loving corner he has painted himself into – support for Britain on this occasion seems to have been motivated more by his political calculus than a deep sense of solidarity. After several days of deafening silence, Trump was under growing pressure to speak out. And on the whole, his unpredictability and transactional approach to alliances has already called into question Britain’s most important relationship outside Europe.
Beneath the surface, the international response to the Salisbury attack reveals alarming cracks in the UK’s position on the world stage. It is widely assumed that the UK’s weak response to similar incidents, not least the 2006 murder of the Russian defector and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, has convinced Putin that he can get away with such provocations. But Putin may also have anticipated the public outrage over the attack on the Skripals and calculated that EU member states with pro-Russian governments – namely, Hungary, Greece, and, soon, Italy – would veto any strong EU response. By this reasoning, Putin could drive an even larger wedge between Britain and Europe, thus advancing his longstanding goal of undermining European solidarity.
In any case, the UK’s isolation and vulnerability are now abundantly obvious. In its efforts to apply pressure on Europe, the Kremlin has identified Britain as a weak link. And those efforts go well beyond attempted murder on British territory. It seems increasingly likely that Russia also interfered in the Brexit referendum, as it did in the 2016 US election; and that Russian criminal elements have penetrated London’s financial and services sectors.
Britain is a beachhead in Russia’s strategy to undermine European security. Unfortunately, the territorial defense guarantee that comes with NATO membership does little good in a conflict conducted in the shadows through assassinations, cyber warfare, and criminal subterfuge. Nor does NATO membership help in responding to the Kremlin’s exploitation of European dependence on Russian energy, such as when it uses natural-gas supplies as a geopolitical weapon.
The decision by a slim majority of UK voters to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the Skripal episode has made it clear that the costs of departure will be felt first on the foreign-policy front. The rest of Europe will sink or swim together in confronting Russian aggression. But the UK, having singled itself out, is a prime target for a dunking.
In recent years, Russian officials had already become increasingly derisive toward Britain’s presumptions about its international status and power. Like many observers around the world since the Brexit vote, the Kremlin does not look at the UK and see a country able to wield anything approaching global influence. Rather, it sees a country mired in nostalgia – easy pickings for destabilization.
In a sense, “Leave” voters were right that the EU is out of touch with the times, but not for the reasons they thought. One can debate whether the EU is a stale champion of the rules-based liberal international order. But what is now clear is that it is not ready for the emerging post-liberal order.
In the new order, strong states will throw their weight around with little care for the rules-based system that the EU has long epitomized. But at least the EU will have numbers on its side. Putin’s Russia will be just the start of post-Brexit Britain’s worries. The UK will also have to contend with China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even its most important ally – the US.
Just as Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the consensus-based multilateralism of the post-war era is being supplanted by muscular nationalism. In this new schoolyard, only those with committed friends will be able to stand up to the bullies. Others will have no other choice than to cower and hope for the best.
The Brexit Threat to British Security
Perhaps the recent attack on a former Russian agent in a quiet English country town will be enough to show Brexiteers that a “Britain alone” is a “Britain vulnerable.” But it is also possible that by the time UK nationalists discard their ideological blinders, it will be too late.
LONDON – Some moments in history are steeped in irony. To glimpse a current example, look no further than the United Kingdom. As the Brexit negotiations with the European Union approach a tipping point – this month’s European Council meeting – the British government is seeking its scorned European partners’ help in its dispute with Russia over the attempted murder of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.
But even before the brazen attack on the Skripals – targeted with the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok – Prime Minister Theresa May had become more forthright in highlighting the values and interests shared by the UK and the EU, including with regard to security and defense. Indeed, at last month’s Munich Security Conference, she proposed a “deep and special partnership” on such matters.
In May’s preferred scenario, the UK would continue to participate fully in EU agencies like EUROPOL, while upholding European Arrest Warrants (EAWs). Moreover, the UK would maintain its involvement in existing and future EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions, and coordinate with the EU on sanction regimes under the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
The attack on the Skripals has surely reinforced May’s interest in ensuring strong security cooperation after Brexit. The kind of external threat that the attack represented is best addressed in cooperation with allies. But can the UK’s allies take May seriously?
Those “who threaten our security,” she said in Munich, “would like nothing more than to see us fractured...and to see us put debates about mechanisms and means ahead of doing what is most practical and effective in keeping our people safe.” Then, after reiterating that the UK had made a legitimate and democratic decision to leave the EU, she concluded that the ball is the EU’s court. Not to accept her generous offer of close security cooperation would, in her words, amount to putting “political doctrine and ideology” first.
The irony of May’s stance has not been lost on the 27 EU states that the UK is leaving behind. After all, by casting doubt on the unity of Europe – and, indeed, the entire West – Brexit itself is causing serious damage to European security, all for the sake of political doctrine and ideology.
To be sure, hardline Brexiteers like Trade Minister Liam Fox claim that the only external relationship the UK needs to buttress its security is NATO, led by the United States. Yet while NATO will obviously remain the paramount source of security for all of Europe, no one should be willing to entrust their security to US President Donald Trump, who seems to have more contempt for allies than for adversaries like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As the intelligence chiefs of Britain, France, and Germany warned in a little-noticed joint statement released in Munich, any breakdown in security cooperation between the UK and the EU will have dire consequences.
But May cannot expect to maintain the UK’s current level of security cooperation with the EU, especially in the context of the otherwise “hard” Brexit she envisages. When the UK departs from the EU, it will lose its right to shape the institutional frameworks that have long buttressed its security. This leaves May with two choices: either she can leave those frameworks behind – a highly risky move – or she can accept, at least for the most part, the EU’s terms.
For example, the legal framework for security-related data must also cover commercial data. If the UK can tolerate giving jurisdiction in this area to a European high court, as May’s Munich speech seems to suggest, why not in other areas? The European Court of Justice has an impeccable reputation as an independent judicial body – one that has fairly defended the UK’s own interests many times.
Such an approach would generate significant goodwill in the negotiations. This, together with the UK’s considerable security-related assets and expertise, would create space for the country to carve out unique concessions from the EU, such as full-time observer status in the EU’s influential Political and Security Committee.
Whether or not such forms of cooperation – essential to ensuring security in both the UK and the EU – are realized, however, is far from certain. Though May now seems to hold a more realistic view of the security risks Brexit poses, others in her party remain obstinate.
For example, Owen Paterson, a former Conservative cabinet minister, recently suggested doing away with the Good Friday Agreement, which has delivered two decades of peace to Northern Ireland – a highly reckless statement, given the political sensitivities that the Brexit vote triggered in Ireland. Other Brexiteers, like Environment Minister Michael Gove, are also long-time skeptics of the Good Friday accords. This suggests that, in the eyes of Brexit ideologues, security must take a back seat to their nationalist dreams.
Perhaps the recent attack on a former Russian agent in a quiet English country town will be enough to remove the ideological blinders from more Brexiteers, showing them that a “Britain alone” is a “Britain vulnerable.” But it is also possible that by the time the UK’s citizens and leaders see Brexit from their allies’ perspective – as a selfish and destructive act of betrayal – it will be too late.
A Silver Lining for a Hard Brexit
During a time of American waywardness under US President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom's national security has increasingly come to depend on the European Union as a buffer against Russian revanchism. Ironically, then, the safest form of Brexit might be the one that hurts the most, so long as it leaves behind a stable EU.
LONDON – It is easy to forget that defense and security are not the same thing. Defense is what countries must resort to when their security breaks down. And during peacetime, countries spend money on defense precisely because they fear for their security.
Since 2014, the security environment for Britain and the European Union has deteriorated sharply. In March of that year, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. It was the first time since World War II that a major European power sought to redraw its own borders by force of arms.
In 1994, Russia agreed to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s handover of the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union. But Russia didn’t stop with Crimea; since then, it has waged a low-intensity unconventional war against Ukraine in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
And Ukraine is not alone. Russia has also sent ships and warplanes to threaten the coasts of other Western countries, abducted an Estonian intelligence officer on NATO territory, and sustained an ongoing military buildup in Eastern Europe, the Arctic, and elsewhere.
Despite these deteriorating security conditions, a slim majority of Britons voted in June 2016 to withdraw from the EU – a decision that could fatally undermine the United Kingdom’s relationship with its European NATO partners. Making matters worse, in November of 2016, Donald Trump, who has long expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, was elected president of the United States.
Although Trump expressed disdain for NATO during the 2016 campaign, he appears to have been reined in by the many generals he has installed in top positions. Still, he could always change his mind. The Republican Party is in the throes of a deep internal schism that could end with the victory of its populist wing, led by Trump’s nationalist, anti-EU Svengali, Stephen Bannon.
If Bannon does manage to transform the Republican Party in accordance with his nationalist vision, and if the Republicans retain or regain power in the future, US security commitments to Europe will no longer be reliable. Continued Russian attacks on Western political systems, or even an outright military attack in Europe, could go unanswered by the US.
Without firm US support, a politically divided EU would be increasingly vulnerable to Russian political domination. At the same time, a politically cohesive EU would be a bulwark of stability stretching from the English Channel to Ukraine’s Dnieper River. In the absence of US leadership, a stable and secure EU could thus become the most important pillar of the UK’s post-Brexit security strategy.
But the stability of the EU is far from guaranteed, because a smooth and painless Brexit may tempt other member states to also quit the bloc. Some argue that this outcome is unlikely, because it is impossible, in practice, for eurozone countries to leave. If a eurozone country even suggested that it might withdraw from the euro and the EU, the resulting capital flight would devastate its economy. According to this view, the fact that two-thirds of EU member states belong to the euro is enough to prevent the EU from unraveling.
If only that were so. In reality, a number of important EU members remain outside the euro, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Romania, and Sweden. Moreover, under favorable circumstances, eurozone countries with current-account surpluses – such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Austria – could probably leave the euro without suffering catastrophic harm. And lest we forget, Western electorates have demonstrated a unique capacity for self-harm. Consider not just Brexit and the election of Trump, but also Catalan separatists’ game of economic Russian roulette over the past month and a half.
As things stand, the UK still seems to be politically incapable of abandoning Brexit altogether, even though that would be the best course of action for all involved. But between the options of a “soft” and “hard” Brexit – in which Britain would leave the EU single market and customs union – the latter may have at least one advantage. Namely, it would not further undermine European stability, which also happens to be Britain’s biggest security asset.
To be sure, a “hard” Brexit would come at a high economic cost for the UK. Industrial supply chains would be disrupted, the construction industry would be denuded of its EU workers, the City of London would lose international importance, the pound would continue depreciating, and the public sector – particularly the National Health Service – would be stretched thin. The EU, too, would incur costs, albeit much smaller as a share of its overall economy.
Despite the costs, a “hard” Brexit would, at a minimum, discourage other EU members from following the UK’s lead, thereby shoring up European stability and helping Britain maintain its national security, which may be the most important consideration in the long run. Such an outcome would be ironic, to say the least. But even more ironic is the fact that those pushing for it are the very Brexiteers who would like to see the EU fail. They are convinced that their vision of a buccaneering, global Britain can be achieved only with a clean break from Europe. They might soon find out if they’re right.
Into the Brexit Abyss
For the UK, anything short of complete separation from the EU would be akin to the situation in which France found itself after withdrawing from NATO’s military command in 1966. Until France reversed that decision in 2009, it remained bound by the constraints of other NATO members, but lacked any say in political or military decisions.
PARIS – I have a British friend who never travels without his Irish passport, at least not since June 2016, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. “Just in case,” he likes to say. “You never know what may happen.”
Ever since Brexit, the Irish passport has become something of an insurance policy against irrationality, and represents, for my friend at least, the possibility of retaining his European identity. If things turn out badly in London, he reasons, there is always Dublin.
Hedging has become a favored approach of those seeking to make sense of the British divorce from the EU. The agreement reached this month between UK and EU negotiators has only heightened the unease. On the one hand, that “breakthrough” set the stage for talks on the post-Brexit relationship trade to commence, seemingly making separation inevitable. On the other hand, there is a belief that nothing is set in stone, and that finality will come only after many thorny issues are resolved.
The physical boundary between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and Ireland, which will remain in the EU, remains among the most complex problems. That issue risks becoming the twenty-first-century equivalent of what the Schleswig-Holstein question was for European diplomats in the nineteenth century – a recurring nightmare.
My friend is clearly divided between hope and fear. Paradoxically, his optimism stems from a conviction that the threat of chaos will push the British to reconsider their choice, as John Bull’s pragmatism ultimately returns and prevails. A second referendum, he and others believe, might even be in order.
Beyond placing hope in the revisionist power of chaos, the “Remain” camp is betting that “Leave” supporters will ultimately realize the folly of a “soft” Brexit, and retreat. Anything short of complete separation from the EU would be akin to the situation in which France found itself after withdrawing from NATO’s military command in 1966. Until France reversed that decision in 2009, it remained more or less bound by the constraints of other NATO members, but lacked any say in political or military decisions.
Today, Britain appears to be following a similar trajectory. A “soft” Brexit will not necessarily ease the economic pain of divorce, but will undoubtedly be politically frustrating for both supporters and opponents. And, after having been asked to express their preference, voters could conclude that anything but a “hard” Brexit would be illegitimate and leave the UK stuck between two stools.
The Brexit debate reveals one of the major dilemmas of democracy. What is to be done when a country is deeply divided on a key, even existential, question?
Authoritarian regimes do not face this quandary, at least not outwardly. The leadership decides. However rash a policy might seem to those with representative governments, the “people” in an illiberal order either bend to authority, or mobilize to break it.
In Britain, a small majority voted in favor of Brexit, plunging the country into a state of confusion, which is bound to continue, regardless of what happens in negotiations with the EU. Earlier this month, a study published by YouGov found that British citizens remain as divided on Brexit as they were when they voted last year. It is as if the debate has simply become frozen.
This is partly because views on European integration are tied to education, social status, age, and geographic location. No matter how talented UK and EU negotiators are, there is no compromise that will close these gaps completely. The objective, therefore, should not be to find the best solutions, but the least bad ones. What these will look like remains to be seen; but, at the very least, the “Leave” camp must feel that their votes were respected, while “Remain” supporters need to be convinced that the worst has been avoided.
For now, Britain seems to have accepted that the EU’s demands are not irrational or unacceptable. The UK will pay a premium – some £40 billion ($53 billion) – for its divorce from Europe. In return, the UK will have two years to untangle the numerous threads that tie Britain to the continent.
For those who place their faith in chaos, it is hard to see how that will help. A party of “Bregretters” – those who regret Brexit and could push for its reversal – does not exist. Nor has a strong political figure emerged to lead such a coalition. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair might have pulled this off earlier in his career; after his disastrous decision to support the Iraq war, however, his image is in tatters.
So, despite recent progress and commitments to move Brexit talks forward, nothing about the process is certain, except, perhaps, that it will become more, not less, chaotic as the two-year clock ticks down. That could be bad news for Britain, for Europe, and for democracy. Then again, as my friend with the Irish passport likes to say, you never know what may happen.
London Bridges to Nowhere
In December, negotiators from the European Union and the United Kingdom were able to conclude phase one of the Brexit negotiations by leaving key issues unresolved. But British leaders' apparent conviction that they can muddle through the Brexit process is setting up the UK for a rude awakening.
LONDON – Last week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resuscitated an age-old proposal for a 22-mile bridge to be built across the English Channel. The irony has escaped no one. Johnson is calling for a fantasy bridge at the same time that he is destroying his island country’s only true bridge to the continent: the European Union.
Johnson’s bridge proposal shows yet again that the Brexiteers’ entire project is based on a permanent suspension of disbelief. In December, the European Commission played along, allowing Prime Minister Theresa May to pretend that she can reach three mutually contradictory goals concerning the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU.
The UK’s first goal is to maintain a soft border and frictionless trade with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member state, subject to the rules of the European single market and customs union. The second is to establish identical regulatory regimes throughout the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland. And the third is to “take back control,” by leaving the single market, customs union, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Reaching any two of these goals seems eminently possible. But no one has any idea how to achieve all three. Nevertheless, EU and UK negotiators are now proceeding to phase two of the Brexit process, raising the distinct possibility that they will continue to muddle through without ever resolving the phase-one trilemma. In fact, experts in the European Commission are already predicting that the next round of negotiations will lead to three agreements with the UK before October 2018.
The first would settle the terms of divorce. Despite the uncertainty regarding Northern Ireland, negotiators have started to converge on other key issues, including the size of the UK’s exit bill and the future rights of EU citizens in Britain, and of British citizens in the EU.
A second agreement would establish a “stand-still transition,” whereby the UK would retain the benefits of EU membership, but also the obligations, such as contributing to the EU budget, allowing for the free movement of people, and adhering to European court rulings. The big difference is that the UK will lose its voice at the table. For Britons in the “Remain” camp, such a transition will allow the UK to stay in the EU in all but name. And for some of those in the “Leave” camp, it is a way to exit without falling off a cliff edge.
The third agreement in phase two will center around a roadmap for UK-EU relations after 2021. This will not be a free-trade agreement, but rather a political declaration about where both sides hope to end up. Most likely, the resulting deal will envision a future trade arrangement modeled on the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), together with agreements on foreign policy, security, terrorism, and law enforcement.
But this raises the same concern as in phase one. If the UK government is never forced to explain its long-term plan in great detail, then it could continue to fudge its way forward. The problem is that once the stand-still transition begins, it will be impossible to avoid a reckoning between the different tribes of Remainers and Leavers in the British Parliament. And even if there were a long-term plan that would pass muster with British parliamentarians, it is fanciful to believe that it would also be acceptable to parliamentarians and voters on the other side of the channel.
At a time when anti-globalization sentiment is running high, the remaining EU member states are unlikely to sign off on any trade deal that could undercut their own social and fiscal wellbeing. After all, whereas all previous EU trade deals were designed to achieve convergence between the EU and a third party, an EU-UK deal would be geared toward preventing divergences. Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, has been eloquent on this point. The big question is not whether Britain leaves the EU, he points out, but whether Britain will “still adhere to the European model” of regulation.
It was easy enough for politicians and activists in Europe to oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a monumental deal intended to defend Western trade standards in an increasingly multipolar world. But consider how much easier it will be to campaign against a deal with the UK, given that key figures on both sides of the British political spectrum pose a threat to the European model. On the left, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn seems to welcome a return to 1970s-style subsidies and state aid. And across the aisle, far-right Tories openly dream of establishing a low-tax, low-regulation “Singapore-upon-the-Thames.”
Unfortunately, given the current Brexit timetable, a failure to agree on a long-term deal could well come after the UK has already passed the point of no return. The UK, having formally exited the EU and given up any say in EU decisions, would still be subject to EU laws. Its choice, then, would be between the economic calamity of a no-deal Brexit or the political calamity of a never-ending transition that leaves it no say over EU decisions. In either case, the UK will hardly have taken back control.
That brings us back to Johnson’s bridge to nowhere, which is the perfect metaphor for the Brexit movement. Rather than fall for the false promise of fantasy construction projects, British parliamentarians would do well to force a real decision on the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU, before it is too late.