The Post-Brexit World Order

Just as Brexit marked the end of an era, it marks the beginning of a new one. And there is plenty of reason for both the United Kingdom and the European Union to doubt that it will be better.

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A transcript of this podcast follows:

Elmira Bayrasli: Welcome to Opinion Has It. I’m Elmira Bayrasli.

Archived recording: It’s riven the United Kingdom failed two British prime ministers and created political shockwaves across Europe.

EB: More than four years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Brexit is complete.

Boris Johnson, archived recording: And so I’m very excited to tell you this afternoon that we have completed the biggest trade deal yet worth 660 billion pounds a year.

Ursula von der Leyen, archived recording: It was a long and winding road, but we have got a good deal to show for it.

EB: Negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU came down to the wire.

Archived recording: It wouldn’t be Europe if we didn’t get one done in the very last minute.

EB: But on Christmas Eve 2020, a deal was struck.

Archived recording: Both the EU and the UK have been in contentious talks since March to determine how to proceed with trade within the continent.

EB: And on January 1, 2021, the deed was finally done.

Boris Johnson, archived recording: We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny.

Ursula von der Leyen, archived recording: So to all Europeans, I say, it is time to leave Brexit behind. Our future is made in Europe.

EB: What will Brexit mean for both sides, especially in the long term?

*phone ringing*

EB: Hello.

Timothy Garton Ash: Hello.

EB: Here to discuss what comes next is Timothy Garton Ash, a historian and professor of European studies at the University of Oxford.

TGA: Timothy is fine.

EB: Timothy? Great. Wonderful. Timothy is the author of ten books including most recently a new edition of The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, & PragueTimothy, the UK and the EU, they really narrowly averted a no-deal Brexit but many argue that the last minute agreement is better for the EU than it is for the UK. Regarding trade, in what position does the deal leave the United Kingdom?

TGA: It’s an excellent deal for the EU. It guarantees freedom of movement for German cars, and French cooking equipment. For goods flowing into the UK, but 80% of the British economy is services and it has almost nothing about services. Everything remains still to be agreed, even financial services, which is close to 10% of our exports. It’s a very unfavorable deal for the UK and it puts us in the position that Switzerland is in, which is one of permanent negotiation with the EU, permanent and often rather bad-tempered negotiation with the EU. And the Swiss experience has been that this takes years, is never over, is very difficult, and of course, you’re dealing with a much more powerful counterpart. I mean, clearly in all these respects, Britain is a demander and the EU is simply much more powerful. That’s a recipe for unhappiness and resentment. And here’s an interesting point: you will remember Switzerland nearly came to the point of voting to join the EU. It was very close. Since then, its support for entering the EU has declined in Switzerland precisely because the relationship has become so bad-tempered and so difficult.

EB: So what’s interesting is that the UK negotiators felt that the economic tradeoffs were acceptable if it meant increased sovereignty. Will the UK have the sovereignty it wants?

TGA: So this is a fascinating question because what we’re now being told by the Brexiteers, by the British government, is yes, there are all these costs, yes it’s going to cost an estimated seven billion pounds to fill in all the customs forms and other documentation, but we’ve regained sovereignty. It all depends what you mean by sovereignty. If you mean by sovereignty, formal legal authority to make your own laws, and adjudicate your own laws in your own courts, then Britain has clearly gained sovereignty. If you mean sovereignty, the effective power to control your destiny and realize your interests, then Britain has dramatically lost sovereignty. Now, the formal legal version of sovereignty actually has a long tradition in British and specifically English history. Goes all the way back to the English Reformation, 1533 the Act in Restraint of Appeals to Rome. It’s become something of an English specialty. But as far as I’m concerned, in the twenty-first century rather than the sixteenth, what really matters is sovereignty in the second sense. The effective sovereignty via the actual power to shape your own destiny, which is what Emmanuel Macron means by sovereignty.

EB: Since becoming Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson has seemed committed to playing hardball, even if it meant a hard no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson, archived recording: We were totally clear that we wanted nothing more complicated than a Canada-style relationship based on friendship and free trade. To judge by the latest EU summit in Brussels, that won’t work.

EB: Why did he agree to such a disappointing deal then? Some say the answer can be found across the Atlantic.

Donald Trump, archived recording: So, Boris and I just spoke. We’re working already on a trade agreement and I think it’ll be a very substantial trade agreement…

EB: Donald Trump supported Brexit, at least rhetorically, and promised to conclude a massive trade deal with the UK, but he isn’t president anymore and his successor, Joe Biden, has been critical of Brexit.

Joe Biden, archived recording: Had I been a member of parliament, had I been a British citizen, I would have voted against leaving.

EB: Biden plans to strengthen ties with the EU before negotiating a deal with the UK. In Timothy’s view, the US election played only a marginal role in spurring Boris Johnson to strike a Brexit deal. But after showering Donald Trump with praise in recent years, Johnson will have to show the Biden administration that the UK remains a useful ally.

Boris Johnson, archived recording: There is far more that the unites the government of this country and the government in Washington, any time, any stage, than divides us…

EB: For now, however, there are serious questions about the special relationship between the US and Britain and the UK’s global standing.

TGA: I think for a long time now, the special relationship has been something of a British myth. I once heard former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt say, “the special relationship is so special that only one side knows it exists.” [laughter] And I think that’s even more true now. I mean after all, the US has special relationships with Mexico and with France and with Germany and with Canada, and a bunch of others. And clearly, Britain’s global clout has been significantly diminished almost across the entire American political spectrum. Americans wanted Britain to stay in the EU because it’s usefulness has been as a bridge and a pivot between the United States and, more broadly, the English-speaking world and Europe. And it was that because it was inside both. Now it’s outside the EU, Washington can talk directly to Berlin or Paris, so Britain’s global role significantly diminished, but not negligible. Still a permanent member of the UN Security Council, hosting the G7 this year, hosting the key climate change COP26 meeting. I think Britain will have to work doubly hard to retain the influence that it had by virtue of being a member of the EU.

EB: But does Johnson even care about that? Throughout his time in office, it just seems that he’s been very focused on domestic politics. Is the conservative party even concerned about the UK’s diminished global role?

TGA: I think it would not be unfair to say that the main thing Boris Johnson cares about is Boris Johnson. That is a fairly widespread view of his character and not inaccurate. By the way, many of the conservative MPs who actually voted and made him leader, share that view. They just thought he’s the guy who can win the election for them. But if you step back a bit, I mean the whole pro-Brexit side of the conservative party and of Britain, I think the answer comes in two parts: some of them have illusions that Britain on its own can still be a major global player. They’re simply wrong, but they have that post-imperial delusion. More interestingly, there are others who actually are not so interested in the global role. They say, “why not be a greater Switzerland? What matters to us is that we’re rich and free. All that talk of global role, that’s foreign office talk. Let’s forget about that.” That’s, in many ways, a much more interesting view because it is, as it were, the United Kingdom, finally parting from its world power role or, some would say, world power illusions.

EB: The EU’s Brexit experience has been very different. When the UK first voted to leave, many feared that other member states would soon follow. In fact, this is what far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders had to say on the day of the EU referendum:

Geert Wilders, archived recording: So it could be today that is the start of the end of the European Union as we know it. Today and that would be very good news.

EB: Instead, Euroskeptic political movements seem to have lost steam. The EU was remarkably unified in the Brexit negotiations. Late last year, it finalized a new investment agreement with China and it passed a massive COVID-19 recovery fund called Next Generation EU.

Archived recording: The European parliament has passed its €1.8 trillion budget for the next seven years. The fiscal program and the coronavirus recovery fund were approved by an overwhelming majority of MEPs.

Archived recording: In a first for the bloc, the grants will be funded by billions of euros of common debt.

Charles Michel, archived recording: This is a good deal. This is a strong deal and most importantly, this is the right deal for Europe right now.

EB: But despite these achievements, enormous challenges remain for the EU.

TGA: The key thing here is to distinguish between the short and the long term. In the short term, the EU achieved and maintained fantastic unity in the Brexit negotiations. It’s something they can celebrate in the EU and it drastically discouraged the extreme Euroskeptics across the EU because people had only to say, ‘look at the mess Britain is in.’ That’s the short term and, in that sense, you can argue it strengthened the EU. Nonetheless, a major member-state, the second largest economy inside the EU, an economy, by the way, as large as the 18 other EU member-state economies, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a major player in diplomacy, security, and intelligence. Losing that is a big blow to the EU and I don’t think one should underestimate that. Secondly, there were lots of other disintegrative weakening tendencies inside the European Union, irrespective of Brexit. The North-Side Divide inside the eurozone, President Putin taking a chunk out of its eastern neighborhood, populist nationalists in Hungary and Poland, to name but three.

EB: So speaking of Hungary and Poland, both of these countries have illiberal governments that are creating severe risks for the European Union. You’ve said that an illiberal Hungary within the EU might be more dangerous to the bloc than a democratic United Kingdom outside of it. Can you explain?

TGA: So, the EU is supposed to be a community of democracies. That is written into its basic treaty and repeated in a thousand speeches. It is also, in reality, a community of law. The law and the structure of law and regulation is what holds the whole thing together. To have a country which is no longer a democracy – and I would argue that Hungary under Viktor Orbán is certainly no longer a liberal democracy and probably no longer a democracy, it’s more accurately described as a competitive authoritarian or hybrid authoritarian regime – that’s a big threat to the basic integrity of the EU. Because the rule of law can no longer be relied upon in Hungary and, indeed, in Poland, that is also a fundamental challenge to the whole legal order of the entire European Union. I don’t think we should, for a moment, understate the challenge coming particularly from Hungary – because the erosion of democracy is much further advanced in Hungary than in Poland – to the entire EU.

EB: To counter the forces of disintegration, leadership is essential. Over the last decade, the Union has faced a series of crises.

Archived recording: Overseas now to Greece, a country on the brink of collapse, banks shuttered, ATMs running out of cash…

Archived recording: Economic crisis and political turmoil spread to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland…

Archived recording: Hundreds of thousands of desperate people fleeing war and economic hardship tried to reach the continent…

Archived recording: Braving freezing temperatures, thousands of refugees and migrants continue to cross into Slovenia…

Archived recording: The EU’s economy commissioner says the bloc will experience an even deeper recession than first expected as a result of COVID-19…

EB: German leadership has been vital in confronting these crises, yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reluctant to drive EU integration forward. Until recently that is. In pushing through the budget and recovery fund last year, Merkel showed extraordinary commitment to the European project. The question is whether this will continue once she leaves office in September.

TGA: So, Germany is Europe’s central power. Something close to a hegemon inside the eurozone and one of the fundamental problems of the European project over the last decade has been Germany’s reluctance to do what is necessary to make a European monetary union work. To, as it were, leap over its own shadow. As you may know, in German, there’s a saying: “If one says ‘A,’ one should say ‘B.’” Germany, ever since the eurozone was created, has been saying, “A, yes we want a monetary union, but not B, we need a degree of fiscal solidarity.” So, what Merkel has done, taking the opportunity of the COVID crisis, is really quite remarkable because it’s broken two huge German taboos at a stroke. Number one, these are actual grants to the poorer economy in Europe – they’re not just loans. Number two, it is, in effect, European debt mutualization which Germany has resisted for so long, so it’s a big deal. I think the prospects for Germany continuing down this path are actually quite good for two reasons. First of all, because the logic of this is so clear to more and more people in Germany, and opinion among German economists, and opinion makers has actually shifted. But secondly, because the likely next German government after the autumn election, is a Black-Green coalition, a coalition between Christian Democrats and Greens. The Greens are the most pro-European party in German politics. The CDU has just elected a man, Armin Laschet, who, although he’s not a towering statesmen as yet, comes very much from the traditional liberal conservative West German pro-European wing of the party. So, you know, with all the problems we have in Europe and around the world, I think something we shouldn’t lose too much sleep worrying about is the Europeanism of the next German government.

EB: The stakes for Europe are high. Much of Europe’s history has been defined by unrestrained competition shaped by narrow national interests. It’s a formula that often made Europe the most violent place on earth.

Archived recording: Poland, September 1939: the German foe begins its ruthless march of conquest and sets the stage for World War II…

EB: Since World War II, Europe has enjoyed its longest period of peace in modern history. This has enabled it to become both democratic and prosperous. But should the EU fall apart, and European countries revert to their old ways, this progress could be at risk. According to Timothy, Brexit could help bring about such an outcome in two scenarios. If it is widely successful, or a total disaster. A year ago, just after the UK officially left the European Union, you wrote a commentary calling on remainers to wish for Britain to do well, but the EU to do even better. Why is this balance so important?

TGA: You know, we started talking about the prospects for Brexit and I was passionately opposed to Brexit. I think it’s certainly the biggest political defeat of my lifetime. I think it’s the worst mistake that Britain has made since 1945, even larger than Suez, but now it’s happened, or it’s happening, I cannot wish my own country to do badly. In some sense – it pains me even to say the sentence – but in some sense, I must wish Brexit to succeed. But if it succeeds too well, if Britain turns out to do absolutely brilliantly, as the Brexiteers say it will, then as we just discussed, this becomes a major disintegrative force on the EU and people like Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Marine Le Pen in France will say, “hey, you don’t have to stick with the EU, look at Britain: it’s doing fine outside.” Hence this incredibly difficult balancing act for an English European like me, where we want post-Brexit Britain to do well, but we have also to want the EU to do even better.

EB: For its supporters, Brexit has always been largely about control.

Boris Johnson, archived recording: Now this is a once in a lifetime chance for us to take back control of this country, can you hear me in the back?

EB: They are not alone in this preoccupation. Brexit was just one part of a global shift toward nationalism and populism.

Donald Trump, archived recording: We have to be strong. We have to take our country back. We have to run the country properly.

EB: This trend was fueled by fear. For many people, rapid cultural economic and technological change have caused growing insecurity. Liberal democratic capitalism and the elites who supported it had failed them. Globalized markets and open borders had sapped their power and they wanted to take that power back. The pandemic has exacerbated this sense of powerlessness, especially among those who were already worse off.

Fareed Zakaria, archived recording: Pandemics should be the great equalizer. They affect everyone, but COVID-19 has actually had the opposite effect. Early indications suggest the virus is ushering in the greatest rise in economic inequality in decades, both globally…

EB: In this context, Timothy thinks the only way to avoid another populist backlash is to renew liberalism.

Timothy, I want to end our conversation by discussing your call for renewed liberalism. You have said one of the guiding principles should be, and I quote, “to slow down the rate of change to one that most human natures can bear while preserving the overall liberal direction of travel.” What does this mean in practice and how do we find the right balance?

TGA: So, this surely is a question of questions, isn’t it? Post 1989, we had something which could loosely be called a global liberal revolution. For the last decade, we’ve had something which could loosely be called a global anti-liberal counterrevolution. Everywhere from China and Russia and Turkey, through Poland, Hungary, and Britain to, of course, the United States with Donald Trump, and now with the new Biden administration, with smaller liberal governments in many capitals in Europe, not to mention countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others, the question we’re all asking is, “how do we renew the shared smaller liberalism, which is the common foundation of all liberal democracies, right?” And my argument is that we need to learn from the lessons of our mistakes over the last 30 years. In economic and social policy, we need more equality and more solidarity, and by that, I mean, not just economic equality, but also what I call equality of respect, equality of attention. Paying as much attention to people in the Rust Belt or the north of England or the southeast of Poland or in East Germany as we do to people in the big cities or on the coasts of the US. And on the other side, paying more attention to community of identity because one of the things absolutely clear from the Trump phenomenon, from the Brexit phenomenon, from other populisms, is that this is as much about issues of identity as it is about issues of economics. My argument is that we, broadly speaking, cosmopolitan liberals, quite rightly paid a lot of attention to the international community, but didn’t pay enough attention to the national community. We paid a lot of attention to the other half of the world, not enough to the other half of our own societies and we left talk of the nation to the right. We have to reclaim the notion of a national community, but in a liberal way, not as a reactionary populist nationalism, but as a liberal patriotism. So, we do have to manage immigration, we do have to limit immigration, we do have to be careful about the grant of citizenship, but that citizenship that belongs to the national community has to be open to people from all possible backgrounds and orientations. That’s a liberal dimension and the difference between patriotism and nationalism. This is about love of our own country, not hatred and abuse of other peoples.

EB: You have said that Biden’s election provides a fragile opening for liberal renewal. At this very moment of very deep polarization, is he up to the task?

TGA: What won’t be possible is for the US under Biden to come back and immediately take its seat at the head of the table and be accepted as the leader of the free world. The damage done to the US reputation in the world is so enormous that I can tell you that Americans and Canadians and Australians and Indians and Japanese, are just not ready to accept that, even if the US had the power and the dynamism vis à vis China and others to do it. What we have to look for is what I call a network of democracies and if this liberal renewal is going to succeed, that’s going to be the key to is success. Not a new free world 2.0 led by the United States, but a genuine partnership of democracies which takes the top five issues: relations with China, climate change, what’ll we do about what I call the private superpowers, the digital giants like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, and tackles them collaboratively. That, for me, rather than the question “is Biden up to it?” is going to be decisive. Can the United States, working with others, forge that kind of partnership of democracies to tackle the three, four, five really big issues on the agenda?

EB: Timothy, thank you.

TGA: Great pleasure.

EB: That was Timothy Garton Ash, a historian and professor of European studies at Oxford University and that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening. We’d love to hear what you think of it. Please rate and review our podcast. Better yet, subscribe on your favorite listening app. You can also follow us on Twitter by searching for @prosyn. That’s p-r-o-s-y-n. Until next time, I’m Elmira Bayrasli. Opinion Has It is produced and edited by Kasia Broussalian. Special thanks to Project Syndicate editors Whitney Arana and Jonathan Stein.