With the west’s future in the balance, we must not destabilise the EU furtherby Ian Kearns / November 10, 2016 / Leave a comment
Donald Trump’s election victory has demonstrated just how myopic the UK’s Brexit debate really is. While the details of our future trading relationship with Europe are vital, the bigger picture is that the future of the west now hangs in the balance, darkening the already difficult context in which Brexit negotiations will take place. How Brexit happens in fact will now help shape not only the future of UK-EU relations but whether the EU and the west as we know it survives.
To see why this assertion is true, just consider the current state of both the United States and the European Union.
The US is now openly questioning its own commitment to a liberal order that it helped to create and lead for seven decades. It appears less interested in a tolerant politics and more interested in isolationism than it did just a few weeks ago. From a geo-strategic point of view the upshot is that America’s allies can no longer take US leadership and support on the world stage for granted.
In Europe, meanwhile, concerns and divisions over the handling of terrorism, migration and the logic and impact of continued austerity are fuelling a widespread Eurosceptic political revolt. This revolt may soon produce another populist breakthrough in the Netherlands, Italy or France, shaking the European project not in its periphery but at its core. Given the now regular failure of the polling industry to predict the outcome of elections, who can really be sure that Marine Le Pen will not be the next French president?
The European economy, moreover, is experiencing almost no growth. Few see any political appetite for the difficult structural reforms that might lead to change. Another recession is not only probable but if and when it comes, it is hard to see the single currency surviving. The politics of a new wave of austerity in the south or of more bail-outs from Germany to the rest are just too toxic to be plausible while the ECB is already operating at the limits of what monetary policy can do.
These developments in the US and Europe are of profound importance for British interests and strategy.
Some might say there is diplomatic opportunity in the EU’s current weakness and in the US’ new chosen course. If the EU begins to unravel or change its fundamental character, perhaps Theresa May could face a more flexible negotiating partner, one that makes it easier for her to square Single Market access with limits to freedom of movement? Perhaps a US that wants more from its allies and to do less itself would welcome a UK willing to step up and play a bigger international role outside of the EU?
To believe either or both of these things, however, and even to wish for them, would be a huge mistake. If the US withdraws from Europe no amount of additional British effort will make up the slack. If the EU is weakened further either by a new crisis of the single currency, by another populist breakthrough, or by a combination of both, we will more likely be faced with an EU in a state of disorderly collapse than one in managed retreat. The UK will be left to contemplate not what the new negotiating possibilities are but whether there is anyone or anything left to negotiate with.
Let’s be clear, also, about what a disorderly collapse would look like. The disintegration of the single currency, predicted again by one of its architects just two weeks ago, would make the post 2008 recession look like a minor footnote in Europe’s annual accounts. The consequences would be devastated trade, sovereign defaults, bank collapses and a depression but they would not be limited to the economy. An intolerant politics focused on blaming foreigners for everything would hold sway across the continent, destroying not just EU solidarity but the underlying political fabric of NATO. Russia would see, and claim, a geopolitical victory and its influence would grow. Europe would return to the dangerous balance of power politics that plagued its violent past.
A far sighted Brexit strategy would dispel the complacent belief that we are about to negotiate with a strong and stable EU partner and replace it with the more realistic understanding of how fragile the EU really is. It would also take into account the real risk that Trump’s approach to trade may trigger a new global recession.
An over-riding goal of UK Brexit policy, given this context and its dangers, should be to find ways of helping the EU and its commitment to liberal politics to survive and thrive while the US embarks on its new course. This means seeking to negotiate not just the best trade deal for our country but a deal that helps keep both the eurozone and the UK out of recession in the fundamental interests of both. It means making concessions on free movement of labour and continued payments into the EU budget to help stabilise rather than undermine it. It means proactively acknowledging and protecting the rights of EU citizens living in the UK to ensure their mistreatment as bargaining chips does not appear to legitimise nationalist and populist mistreatment of foreigners elsewhere. And it means taking note of what is happening in the United States and working alongside those Europeans who want to do more for their own defence, not standing in their way, as Michael Fallon seems wont to do.
For sure, this is all difficult politically. But if this approach is not taken and Brexit contributes to the destruction of the EU and the wider west instead, it will deliver a geo-political, security and economic defeat of tragic proportions. Rarely can it have been more appropriate to demand that our leaders rise to the level of events.
On the 17th of November, Prospect launched Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. A publication designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit. To see the complete contents of the report please click here.
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