How Britain can still count after it quits

On foreign policy, 27 + 1 could add up to more than you might think
February 16, 2017

In last year’s interview with the Atlantic, Barack Obama warned that a country that would “resort to nationalism as an organising principle” and that “never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order” would create conflict. He was referring to China but, in the light of President Donald Trump’s inaugural speech, he might just as easily have been referring to the United States.

Trump is the first US president since the 1930s who has not recognised, explicitly, that America’s own ultimate security is dependent on a peaceful, democratic and stable world. He is the first who appears to be unenthusiastic about donning the mantle of leadership of the west with its commitment to the rule of law, human rights and democracy as universal values.

This has global implications, not least for Europe. While I do not expect Trump to dismantle Nato or forge a strategic alliance with the Kremlin, he has made no secret of his indifference to European unity and strength. When asked recently what best served US interests, a strong European Union or strong sovereign nations, he replied: “I don’t think it matters much for the United States… I don’t really care whether it is separate or together.”

It is significant that Prime Minister Theresa May has said the opposite, and made it clear that Britain hopes the EU will survive and prosper. In the light of Trump’s remarks we can no longer assume that western Europe’s geopolitical interests and security will continue to enjoy the priority that they’ve had in the White House since President Harry Truman authorised the Marshall Plan and created Nato.

The consequences of Brexit must be considered against this background: we need to turn our attention from the endless discussion on free trade and the single market, and think about the security implications, both for Britain and Europe as a whole. There could be significant damage. Can we eliminate or reduce that risk? One important EU success in recent years, encouraged by the UK, has been the gradual expansion of a common foreign policy. A common foreign policy is not the same as a single foreign policy or a single European army. The last two are not attainable, even if the UK wanted them: the French, the Germans, the Spanish, the Poles and the Greeks each have national priorities that are often different from each other. But that has not stopped EU countries reaching a common position on an increasing number of foreign policy issues where their national interests do coincide.

The most important examples have been the enforcement of sanctions against Russia, in response to its aggression in Ukraine, and the European-wide sanctions on Iran, which helped deliver the agreement on its nuclear programme. UK involvement was crucial to Europe’s authority in both cases. The measures that have bit deeply in both Iran and Russia have been the financial and banking sanctions. London is not only Europe’s financial centre but it is, along with New York, one of the world’s global financial capitals. So the UK has played a big part, and—until we exit the EU—it will continue to attend the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council where proposals for a common policy are discussed and determined.

After Brexit, however, we will not attend. Even before Trump entered the White House it was crucial for Britain, Germany and France to find a new way of taking forward common foreign policy objectives. Without such joint action, including the UK, Europe’s voice would be weaker in any negotiations with Russia, China or the US. Britain—as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a nuclear weapons state and having, along with France, the strongest military capability in Europe—cannot be sidelined without damage to Europe’s clout. What’s needed is the formation of an EU+1 forum to deal with political and strategic issues as they arise. There is an excellent precedent in the P5+1 when the permanent members of the UN Security Council invited Germany to join them in forging a common policy on Iran. The UK could not, on major strategic issues or at times of serious crisis, simply be asked to join an EU consensus that has already been agreed; it would need to be involved in the discussions from the off.

An EU+1 forum would also further enhance the cross-Channel intelligence and counter-terrorism co-operation which has grown dramatically in recent years. Britain’s intelligence agencies are among the world’s best, and the skills learned in confronting the IRA are available to Europe as part of our joint struggle against jihadi terrorism. The big change from now would, of course, be that if the UK could not agree with the joint view of the EU states on a particular matter, it would no longer have a veto to prevent the EU going forward. On such occasions, the EU and Britain would each have to go their own way.

While the UK has often been a semi-detached EU member, this unhelpfulness has really concerned supranational integration—in regard to the euro, the Social Chapter, Schengen and other domestic issues. On foreign policy and security, the UK has been as co-operative as anyone in the EU. This should not be seen as surprising. For at least the last 300 years, the UK has seen any serious threat to the stability and liberty of mainland Europe as a threat to its own interests and security. That explains the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns in the early 18th century. It is why Wellington and Nelson were sent to defeat Napoleon in the 19th century. It is why we declared war on the Kaiser the day after he invaded Belgium in 1914, and why we did the same with Hitler when he invaded Poland.

There was no EU that required us to show solidarity with our fellow Europeans on these occasions. It was because we were then, as we remain today, a European nation able to recognise our interests and carry out our obligations.

That will not change in 2019. If it did, all of Europe, both the UK and the EU, would be the losers.