Pro-Brexit demonstrators Jack Taylor/Getty Images

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.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

Order now

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.

http://prosyn.org/SVNyHtf;

Handpicked to read next

  1. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images

    The Summit of Climate Hopes

    Presidents, prime ministers, and policymakers gather in Paris today for the One Planet Summit. But with no senior US representative attending, is the 2015 Paris climate agreement still viable?

  2. Trump greets his supporters The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Populist Plutocracy and the Future of America

    • In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently sold out the blue-collar, socially conservative whites who brought him to power, while pursuing policies to enrich his fellow plutocrats. 

    • Sooner or later, Trump's core supporters will wake up to this fact, so it is worth asking how far he might go to keep them on his side.
  3. Agents are bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

    The Man Who Didn’t Save the World

    A Saudi prince has been revealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 million. Had he given the money to the poor, as the subject of the painting instructed another rich man, he could have restored eyesight to nine million people, or enabled 13 million families to grow 50% more food.

  4.  An inside view of the 'AknRobotics' Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    Two Myths About Automation

    While many people believe that technological progress and job destruction are accelerating dramatically, there is no evidence of either trend. In reality, total factor productivity, the best summary measure of the pace of technical change, has been stagnating since 2005 in the US and across the advanced-country world.

  5. A student shows a combo pictures of three dictators, Austrian born Hitler, Castro and Stalin with Viktor Orban Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images

    The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies

    The Hungarian government has released the results of its "national consultation" on what it calls the "Soros Plan" to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

  6. Project Syndicate

    DEBATE: Should the Eurozone Impose Fiscal Union?

    French President Emmanuel Macron wants European leaders to appoint a eurozone finance minister as a way to ensure the single currency's long-term viability. But would it work, and, more fundamentally, is it necessary?

  7. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now