Stephen Booth is Acting Director of Open Europe.
The Brexit debate has become so bitter, stuck in the weeds of Westminster parliamentary process and Brussels technocracy, that we have lost sight of the bigger picture. If Boris Johnson is returned as Prime Minister next month to implement his vision for Brexit – “free trade not political alignment” – it is vital that the UK thinks more deeply about what being independent of the EU might actually mean and require in the 21st Century.
While the details of EU withdrawal matter – settling the budget, regulatory alignment, the length of transition periods and so on – they should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Most of these issues are likely to be no more than footnotes when in decades to come we look back at this episode in the long sweep of British and European history.
Brexit is about a lot of things – “taking back control of our borders, money and laws” – but fundamentally it is about Britain’s place in the world, including our international relationships with its major powers, primarily but not exclusively the EU and the US. However, Brexit has revealed a grave lack of national self-assuredness about this question at a time when the world is undergoing major change.
Brexiteers didn’t advocate greater independence from the EU simply for independence’s sake but because it would free the UK to do things it couldn’t otherwise do and/or prevent the UK being subject to a deepening political union whose ambitions it did not share. The fact that the official Remain campaign largely confined itself to Project Fear in the referendum (i.e. relying on reasons not to leave rather than reasons to be in the EU) illustrated the lack of confidence in making the pro-European case in Britain, which might ultimately explain why the side Leave won. After all, every UK government has sought opt-outs from EU integration since the Maastricht Treaty.
Arguably, Britain only turned to Europe in the 1970s because we had exhausted all the alternatives. The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us that that the world is now a much more complicated, yet broadly peaceful and open, place than it was when Britain joined the European Community. Opportunities for deeper political and economic relationships now exist in Asia and Africa where they did not before. Flexibility and dexterity are likely to be increasingly important in international affairs.
However, the difficulty of extricating ourselves from the EU has illustrated just how deeply integrated, both intellectually and practically, much of the UK state has become with the European project. It has been astonishing to witness how many in the highest echelons of the business and diplomatic communities cannot seem to conceive of how an economy the size of the UK could operate independently of the EU.
Our politics finds it so difficult, or perhaps uncomfortable, to talk seriously about our international role and relationships that instead we constantly engage in proxy battles. Advocates of a closer relationship with the US talk gushingly of a free trade agreement, which is unlikely to make a major economic difference, while sceptics fixate on bogeymen such as chlorinated chicken or the dangers to the NHS. The reality is that a deal with the US is much more likely to be geopolitically than economically significant, for what it will say about the UK’s relationships with the EU for one, but also China.
Meanwhile, however much some people on either side of the Channel would wish it otherwise, the EU and the UK are fated to co-exist. As Johnson noted in 2016, “Whatever our relationship is going to be with the treaties of the European Union, the United Kingdom is not leaving Europe broadly conceived, we are a European country, we’re a dedicated European power.”
It is in both sides’ interest that a cooperative new relationship is established and there will continue to be much on which the UK and the EU agree. However, we will have to get used to thinking about the EU as a question of foreign policy, and vice versa. Last week, Emmanuel Macron, issued a stark reminder of just how much we cannot take for granted. In just one interview with The Economist our most important European military ally suggested that NATO was experiencing “brain death”, called into question whether Europe could rely on the US to honour the Article 5 commitment to collective defence, and advocated the EU seek to rehabilitate Vladimir Putin.
Macron sees himself at the vanguard of establishing greater European autonomy on foreign policy and defence but, while Brexit enables France to be the natural leader of such a project, the reality is that the EU lacks the means without British involvement. Macron knows this and has mooted UK membership of a new European Security Council. At the same time, many in the EU share the UK’s instinct that nothing Europe does should undermine the US’ commitment to NATO. Therefore, the UK can still have an important role to play in the geopolitics of its Continent. However, in order to do so we will probably need to engage with aspects of the EU’s thinking more intensely than we did as a member to date.
What is the British government or the Opposition’s view on these questions? I’m not sure they could tell you. EU membership enabled the UK to put off difficult questions about its role in Europe and the wider world, but the Brexit vote has yet to shake us from our complacency.