THE BREXIT POST-MORTEM: NOW WHAT? By Jeremy Kinsman (Article)
Ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world welcomed the end of the annus horribilis of 2020. In Britain, it also meant a game-ending whistle on the Brexit process. But a staggering economy and a grim daily death toll muted celebration by English nationalists.
Brexit was always an emotional exercise about identity over economics, energized through scapegoating the European Union for difficulties that the United Kingdom had a major hand in—the shambles of the Iraq war, the continental migrant crisis, an EU expansion too far and fast, the Great Recession, globalization.
Brexit cast old against young, and countryside against cities, fueling a wedge of resentment toward educated “elites.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to repair those breaches. But half of Britain—and, ominously, more than half of independence-inclined Scotland—still resent the Brexit narrative denying the European facts of British life. News that Stanley Johnson, the PM’s father (a former official of the European Commission), was applying for French citizenship thanks to a French grandmother, summed up both the ambiguities of identity and the attractions of mobility.
Now what, for Britain and Europe?
How will the new dynamic affect British diplomacy, given that British officials are no longer, strictly speaking, European? Tony Blair used to say, “I won’t choose between Europe and America. I’ll have both.” But at the moment, Britain risks having neither.
Brexit archives London’s pose as trans-Atlantic bridge, interpreting to Americans the state of mind of 450 million Europeans. The US now looks to Berlin and Paris to interpret the EU, and as prime partners in setting trans-Atlantic relations. Does this end Britain’s “special relationship” with Washington (“so special that only one of them can see it,” as one German official huffed)?
English ambivalence to EU membership has old roots. Charles de Gaulle held from wartime experience that the UK was too tied to Washington to commit to Europe’s postwar political project, which he envisioned as a primarily Franco-German alliance. In 1952, Foreign Minister Anthony Eden explained that “we know in our bones” that joining “would contradict the inalterable marrow of the British nation.”
In 1958, when de Gaulle returned to power, even though the Treaty of Rome had committed France to the European project a year before, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told him that Britain “cannot accept” the Common Market. “I beg you to give it up.” Still, as the EEC countries began to gain clear economic advantage, MacMillan convinced his government and Conservative Party in 1961 to launch an accession bid.
Ever the nationalist, de Gaulle vetoed successive UK applications—first in 1963, then in 1967—believing that once in, the UK relationship with the US would hinder Europe’s “strategic sovereignty.” The star-crossed Macmillan-deGaulle EU accession courtship included Macmillan bursting into tears during a hunting party at Rambouillet over de Gaulle’s intransigence and de Gaulle witheringly telling his cabinet he was nearly moved to quote Edith Piaf at the sight: “Ne pleurez pas, milord.”
History matters. The First World War was a shared tragedy. Wounded generations were lost to cynicism, insecurity, and susceptibility to escapist competitive nationalisms.
But the catastrophe of the Second World War is remembered differently on either side of the Channel. On one side, the trauma of defeats and destructive occupations, great crimes, and wanton cruelty drove the postwar project to end Europe’s murderous wars forever by forcing functional cooperation and a shared beneficial social model.
This over-arching redemptive ethos eluded the British, whose island victor’s wartime narrative remains heroic in nostalgic re-telling. The EEC’s economic relevance mattered in Britain, not the European project’s essential political purpose that never engaged British—or at least English—identity. As the great journalist Hugo Young recalled, “Europeanism” was viewed in Whitehall as “an eccentric allegiance.”
Empires foregone also condition collective memory, not that the British yearn nostalgically for days of glory of their empire on which the sun never set. But the exceptionalist legacy of a global and transcendental history helped sustain the enduring gut feeling EU membership was just not in “their bones,” even though top British politicians like Roy Jenkins and Chris Patten, and some of the EU’s best and brightest officials, made the European venture work and shine more plausibly to the rest of the world. EU governance and diplomacy miss their voices of British liberalism.
The UK’s challenge is to succeed as a single nation in an increasingly interdependent world. Having narrowly won its Brexit referendum with a cynical nationalistic slogan “take back control,” the government needs comparably imaginative investment and commitment to the future of “global Britain.” Team Johnson argues that British talent, experience, and entrepreneurial energy can forge success with global soft power brands such as Shakespeare, Manchester United, BBC World, the Beatles and AstraZeneca.
Nonetheless, the objective global assessment is that Britain is a diminished proposition from its abandoned role as a leading member of the half-billion strong European Union whose collective economy rivals the US and China.
Luckily, international opportunity knocks. This year, the UK chairs two international summits—in June the G7 (succeeding the wasted year under Trump). Turning to President Joe Biden’s plan to convene a wider summit of democracies, Johnson is inviting Australia, India, and South Korea to join the G7 meeting, creating a way station in the campaign to recuperate democracies’ reputations and self-confidence, and to align them in a cautionary message to others, especially China.
In November, COP 26, the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, or conference of the parties, meets in Glasgow in the next defining stage in the alliance against global warming, pivotal to Biden’s climate agenda. The UK government hopes its multilateralist leadership dims the Biden administration’s memory of Tory over-the-top courting of Brexit-supporting and diplomacy-averse Donald Trump.
Globally, London banks on leadership opportunities to vault its prestige and influence above its actual weight, including leveraging its anachronistic UK standing as one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and as the convenor of the neglected Commonwealth, as well as building on its status as NATO’s second-biggest defence spender.
Britain has to exploit its new advantage of agility outside the EU. Notably, the UK has outperformed the flat-footed EU on COVID-19 vaccinations, validating for some the optimistic case for leaving. But already the government has cut its exemplary performance on Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 0.7 percent back to 0.5 percent of GDP.
But the irresistible counterpoint to the UK’s identity-based decision to go it alone is the pull and reality of the EU’s gravitational economic weight. The UK can’t compensate for the EU’s economic importance to Britain with lesser trade relationships. It will have to specialize in allocating creative resources.
The UK and the EU will be negotiating crucial details of their bilateral economic and trading arrangement for years. Trading its nameplate at the EU table for a negotiator’s seat across the table may seem a satisfying assertion of sovereign independence for some, but it shouldn’t delude the British side that it’s a negotiation between equals.
Mutual incomprehension conditioned the Brexit negotiations. The EU underestimated the profundity of the UK’s identity beliefs. “We never really understood each other,” an EU negotiator confided. The UK never empathized with the EU commitment to a fair European social model, most theatrically under Margaret Thatcher, who famously insisted there was no “such thing as society.” For the EU belief system, common policy is all about “society.”
The Brexit endgame left scars on both sides. There were pointless British flourishes—for example, exiting the EU’s remarkable Erasmus Plus program that has exposed a million university students to other countries’ realities, and other nationalistic cutbacks on interchange between UK and EU citizens.
Impatient Europeans want now to get on with the building of their “ever-closer union,” spared at last from UK haggling and opting-out of key policy areas. The EU is already a global rule-maker for key areas of economic life, such as governance of the Internet and social media, and Britain will be compelled to take some EU-mandated rules, like it or not. Political coherence remains problematic for a union of 27 still-sovereign nations, some of which—Poland, Hungary—are increasingly nationalistic and illiberal, though populations remain broadly EU-supportive.
Brexit has definitively discouraged any other EU defection. France’s Emmanuel Macron wants to boot up the EU’s world role but the EU’s forward momentum may depend on how German leadership evolves when Angela Merkel steps down in September. In any event, Britain’s island history will inevitably stay keyed to Europe’s. The UK will likely align with the EU on most value-based foreign policy issues, especially the overarching climate and health crises.
In assessing the project by Europeans to end their wars forever by creating a humane model for economic and political unification while maintaining cultural and other diversities, a Chinese ambassador described it in 2006 as the sort of geo-political event that occurs every 500 years. In or out of the EU, the UK is part of its epic story.
Article first appeared in Policy - Canadian Politics and Public Policy
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