Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
“Brexit”, said our new Prime Minister, “means Brexit.” But what does Brexit mean? Her success, and our country’s, depends on how she is able to fill that tautology out. In Article 50’s theory, she will negotiate with the European Commission. In practice, she will treat with all 27 remaining member states and with Washington: the one capital that can make Angela Merkel listen. They will judge Britain by its behaviour and this gives the new government the opportunity to get more than it could obtain from a narrow, Europe-focused negotiation.
To Germany and America one question is all-important: does our leaving of the EU also mean we cease to be a member in good standing of the Western, rules-based, international system? The Leave campaign’s rhetoric gave plenty reason for alarm. Brexit, said Michael Gove, was to be the “first stage in the democratic liberation of a whole continent.” He gave every impression not just of wanting to leave the EU, but of plotting to destroy it.
In a world of many countries, the absolute sovereignty of one country’s parliament over things that affect several more is impossible. To ask which should prevail is to imitate a medieval philosopher confused about whether an irresistible force can manage to shift an immovable object.
So when extreme Brexiteers elevated the constitutional fiction that the House of Commons is sovereign into the moral principle that it ought to be sovereign, and to do what it wanted, whenever it wanted, Washington and Berlin took fright. No international agreement with such a Britain would be possible. In the hideous jargon of international relations conferences, had the UK become a “consumer” rather than a “producer” of international order?
A Britain that keeps its word, however, will be in a good position to the other 27 remaining EU members reasons go cooperate that go beyond just being able to sell their cars and cheese without tariffs. The UK still has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is one of two serious European military powers, and the only major state to spend both two per cent of GDP on defence and 0.7 per cent on international aid. Deployed carefully – it would backfire to be seen to hold the other states hostage – these are resources that can help Theresa May get the deal Britain needs.
The free movement of people is the most difficult issue. Leave voters expect something to be done about it, but to give Britain access to the other elements of the single market without staying in the common labour market would trigger demands in the Netherlands and Scandinavia for the same thing, and risks tearing the EU apart. Since the survival of the EU is by some way the most important element of German foreign policy, any concessions in this area will be dearly bought because Britain will have to be seen to pay a heavy price.
Britain is however in a position to mitigate, though not eliminate entirely, opposition in Eastern Europe. Free movement isn’t only a huge practical benefit for countries there, it is also an essential symbol that they are first class European citizens. Now that Britain has left, it might be easier for them to accept, say, restrictions on access to the British welfare system in exchange for greater military protection, including a permanent British military presence, against Russian aggression.
Greece and now in particular Italy are struggling to deal with the external migration crisis. Now that Turkey has been enlisted to stem the flow from Syria, its root cause is war, economic failure, and the collapse of states in Africa. Leaving the EU will free up about £800 million per year in EU-administered development funding. This could be diverted to help poor African states build better institutions while still counting towards the 0.7 per cent aid target.
Furthermore, even though we will be leaving the EU, vital matters of national security, environmental policy, and even some areas of economic cooperation will need to be decided by UK-EU agreement. This should be done through a formal partnership organisation. It would go some way towards limiting the loss of influence we would suffer by leaving official EU institutions.
Finally, the United States, at least as long as Trump does not win, has a major interest in strong and friendly UK-US relations. They will put pressure on the UK and other European states to come to a reasonable agreement. All other things being equal however, it is the UK that is likely to feel the most pressure. It would be wise to offer them something to cause them to reassess. From Washington’s point of view, the last British government’s pro-China policy was the most egregious. Now, particularly given China’s rejection of the international ruling on the South China Sea, would be particularly good time for the UK to reverse policy, and return to its traditional support for democratic Asian powers.
The Brexit negotiation process was deliberately stacked against a state that leaves. This Government will have its work cut out, but if it is sufficiently creative in its foreign policy, it should be able to minimise the damage.