Why Does the United States Oppose Brexit? I Can’t Say


As War on the Rocks readers are no doubt aware, Britons go to the polls tomorrow in a national referendum to decide whether the country ought to remain a member of the European Union or leave. The situation is, to put it mildly, confused and extremely strained. No major country has left the European Union before so no one really understands how a vote to leave — a “Brexit” — would in practice play out. On the other hand, the European Union itself is changing, profoundly, becoming in all likelihood a United States of Europe — as it must if it has any chance of saving itself from its current otherwise unarrestable economic decline and associated political turmoil. As best as anyone can tell from opinion polls, the country is more or less evenly split.

On the “Remain” side there is essentially very little passion, instead there is a sort of weary realist this-is-the-best-we-can-ever-get-ism — my friend Patrick Porter, for instance, has managed a “reluctant case for Brexit.” In a nutshell, he says, despite the European Union being objectionable in many ways, we cannot leave for several reasons. We will be poorer as a result, partly because the rump European Union would seek to punish the United Kingdom.It might split the country too because Scotland, which is more Europhile than England and has a strong separatist minority, would seize the opportunity to hold its own independence referendum. Moreover, Europe needs Britain inside in order to reform it and to curb the worst instincts of the continental elite.

On the “Leave” side there is a veritable volcano of passion, indeed to use an apposite Americanism, Brexiteers are on the verge of losing their shit big time. For the record, I am absolutely committed to Brexit. The idea that the 1000-year independent existence of my country should hinge on a few economic predictions arguing a couple of percent points difference over a decade is puerile. The real question is whether in 50 or 100 years’ time the name Britain has any more relevance in international discourse than Mercia does today. Fears of Scotland seceding are massively overblown: that shale oil has imposed ceiling on the price of oil of about $60 per barrel is the least of a number of barriers to any such move. And the idea that Britain can lead the European Union from within is laughably at odds with experienced reality. Prime Minister David Cameron’s deal with Europe, his hard won concessions, bear essentially no relation to the rather modest aims he announced in his Bloomberg speech in 2013. Basically, Britain asked for very little and was cordially invited to piss off. That is what we should do, I think.

My point here is not, though, to debate Remain versus Leave. At this point it has practically all been said and we, in Britain at any rate, are all fed up with talking — alea iacta est, let the vote decide the right of it. What I would like instead is to ask a different question — something that I find perplexing that maybe American readers will be able to clarify. The discussion is perhaps also relevant beyond the 23rd of June, whatever the result of the referendum turns out to be. A few weeks ago President Barack Obama visited Britain to make it clear in his view that America strongly wished that Britain would not leave the European Union. In his words:

The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue — including within Europe.

What? Why?

I don’t want to wax lyrical about the “special relationship.” In fact, I think there is a special relationship, but at the end of the day the United States acts in its own interests, as it should (and as Britain should, for that matter). Nor do I wish to dwell on the shared language, to a greater or lesser degree common culture, to a large degree world outlook, or indeed the many perils shared and overcome. I can do no better than Andrew Roberts who has written eloquently on these points days ago:

Imagine if a bunch of accountants had turned up at Valley Forge in that brutal winter of 1777 and proved with the aid of pie-charts and financial tables that Americans would be better off if they just gave up the cause of independence. George Washington would have sent them off with a few short, well-chosen words on the subject — probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon.

The thing is, though, I just don’t get it. The enthusiastic case against Brexit — the argument for British membership of the European Union both empowering the United Kingdom and benefiting the United States at the same time — which the president delivered in his typically rhetorically adroit manner just doesn’t add up. The European Union is an economy-wrecking, nation-destroying machine which is pumping instability into the international system.

Europe is Not Really on the Line

There is a Henry Kissinger quote often repeated in Brussels in order to justify “ever closer union” which goes “who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” It’s probably apocryphal. At the time, he is reputed to have said that what actually bugged him was that the European interlocutor he would get to answer the phone was inevitably incompetent, ineffective, and powerless. In later years, it seems he warmed to the sentiment, when asked how he felt of the political future of the European Union:

It is of course a very difficult task to design a political entity that extends from Bulgaria to Denmark and to get a common policy. But at the time that I was Secretary of State, there was no point of organisational identity, with which we could deal. And so I was reported to have said that I didn’t know the telephone number to call. I am not sure I ever said that, but I now think this is such a good line, why shouldn’t I agree to it?

A good question! One reason why not would be that while there is now an organizational identity with which to deal, it remains incompetent, ineffective, and powerless.

To say the European Union is bureaucratically complex is a magnificent understatement. Its self-described “unique institutional set up” comprises the European Council, which sets direction but does not make law, a European Parliament, with 750 members and no opposition, a European Commission, which is effectively the bureaucracy, including that of the diplomatic service, and the Council of Europe, which is different from the European Council. There are four presidents as well — of the parliament, the commission, the council, and the other council — plus a couple of extra presidents — of the Court of Justice and the Central Bank, amongst others. All clear? Of course not. No outsiders understand how this works, and they are not meant to.

One might argue that it is precisely this situation that occasions the need for Britain to stay in, the better therefore to reform it from within. Meanwhile, not incidentally, it should lead this reform in a in a manner congenial to the interests of the United States, which we would know apparently on account of our special relationship. This, in fact, is the argument of the Remain camp, in so many words: Britain is special, not just an island off of mainland Europe but somehow intermediate between it and America. Where to begin with the problems with this point of view? For a start, as noted, it massively exaggerates Britain’s influence in Europe which, if not nugatory, is certainly not greater than Washington’s all on its own. Moreover, it casts Britain in the role of sock-puppet to America which is condescending and counterproductive.

An even bigger problem is that the case against Brexit is explicitly buttressed on the idea that there is no European superstate in the offing. Forget about it, we are told! Never going to happen! Indeed, since the British government is legally obliged to call another referendum in the case of any further treaty change or substantial further transfer of sovereignty the only plausible continuing role for Britain in the European Union is as spoiler — recalcitrant, meddlesome, constantly wheedling, and forever threatening should the other members wish to pursue reforms that might make it something less of an incoherent, incompetent, and ineffective semi-chaos poised changelessly in a superposition of state/not state.

Brexit is good for Britain. But it’s also better for Europe and America too.

I Drink Your Milkshake

Americans are increasingly pissed off with European defense spending levels, which are practically uniformly below — often well below — the two percent of GDP level set as a NATO norm. Last year Britain managed to stick to that level, barely, by creative accounting. Basically, Europe is skiving — “freeloading” in American parlance — and has done for decades. Again, one might say a “reformed Europe,” one with a sensible power like Britain at its core, could improve matters. Instead of 28 separate defence budgets, all with their own weird local industrial compromises and trade-offs, you could have one centrally planned one and at least achieve some economy of scale — more bang for the buck, as it were. Or as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon says of his “eurosceptic”  argument for staying in the European Union, to “…make it work for us.  That’s also the British way – to  fight, to lead, and not to run away when things get tough.”

Brexit supporters fear exactly this. Most recently Field Marshal Lord Guthrie who originally opposed it has converted to the Leave campaign on account of it:

What has changed his mind? It is his anxiety about a growing EU role in defence, leading to a European Army. ‘I think a European Army could damage NATO. It is expensive. It’s unnecessary duplication to have it. It would appeal to some euro vanity thing.’             

Again the Remain campaign pooh-poohs the idea of a European army — forget about it! It is not going to happen! But the logic is obvious and the evidence is clear — straight from the mouth of the European Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker — that that is the direction of travel. Suffice to say that Britons are not on board with this idea, hence the eagerness of Remain camp to keep it off the agenda. From an American perspective, though, it’s got distinctive upsides, no? Actually, no. Lord Guthrie nails one essential point:

To get 28 people sitting round a table being decisive is very, very difficult. If you have a European Army, you will find that lots of those taking part will see it as a way of getting a seat at the top table as cheaply as they possibly can. Then they can actually do less, and the equipment programmes and the size of the forces suffer. When it comes to leading, you want a very clear chain of command, capable of making quick decisions.

After 14 years of war by coalition in Afghanistan, Washington should recognize that getting to the top table as cheaply as possible is the leitmotif of European strategy. The issue of clear and lean chains of command is exceedingly pertinent — if a theatre commander in action needs personally to ring the German minister of defense for permission to employ a minor sub unit in offensive operations,let alone past bedtime — it is probably best not to have that unit in the first place, to pick a not outrageous real world example which was conveyed to me by a senior NATO commander. A Euro-division stitched together with battalions and brigades from this country or that is worth less than the sum of its parts.

The bottom line, though, is that the benchmark strategic mind state of the European Union is pacifism and the primacy of its auto-vaunted soft power. If there were war in Asia, for example, it might be worth America’s while to put a call in to London, which has a few minor assets around Singapore and some Gurkhas in Brunei, and another to Paris, which also possesses a handful of post-colonial outposts in the area, but that would be it — calling Europe is pointless. As if this was not bad enough, it’s far from clear that Europe is up to defending itself even against a power as sclerotic and maladroit as Russia.

The German foreign minister recently accused NATO of warmongering against Russia while a Pew survey seems to reveal that Article 5 of the NATO Charter, the bedrock of the Atlantic alliance, would likely be observed if push came to shove by the United States (56 percent of those polled), Canada (53 percent), and Britain (49 percent). Germany, however, is trailing at 38 percent. In truth, imagine a Russian “hybrid attack” on, say, Lithuania — one that was conducted with sufficient fig leaf for the Russians to pretend it was a humanitarian operation and everyone else to go along with the pretence if they wished. Who would fight? Not Europe and probably not even many Lithuanians. Those over 50 with deep roots and bitter memories might put up a last futile stand piling up bodies around the farmstead. But for the young, well educated, and fleet of foot, it’s much more sensible given freedom of movement rules and bargain airfares to catch EasyJet to Munich or Milan and make a life there. Indeed, that’s what many are doing now even without a war.

Really, what is of value to the United States militarily? The major thing is the “five eyes” community, the “alliance that fights” as it was once described to me by a somewhat drunk American general, which is comprised of America, Britain, and the major states of the commonwealth. What earthly sense does it make to put a stake through that, which ultimately is where this all leads?

Harebrained Schemes

One thing the European Union is excellent at is making promises that it can’t keep, threats that it will never back up, and bets that it can never pay out. This is more and more apparent every day — the cosmic bungling of Ukraine, enjoined to revolt against Russian domination then left to hang because the strategic geniuses of Western Europe reckoned it a good idea to base an industrial economy on oil and gas supplies from a country they could not really afford to poke in the eye; the frantic leg-humping of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, an incipient Islamic  autocrat, in the hopes that he will turn off the stream of migrants out of the war-torn Middle East beckoned on by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The European Union is a kind of Titanic. In the minds of its designers it was supposed to be impregnable to icebergs — in fact they reckoned that the striking of icebergs and ensuing moments of crisis were vital inflection points in which further steps towards political integration might be achieved. Most Remainers proclaim they want to stay in it to reform it, which they cannot do. Some seem genuinely to think everything is a-okay, which it is certainly not. The debate in Britain is essentially about whether it is better to stay on the sinking ship until it sinks or to jump before it sinks. Either way it is sunk.

Which brings us back to the question: Why does America oppose Brexit? I confess, dear reader, that I am no closer to an answer than a suspicion, a plausible theory, that Washington has no better idea how to rescue the status quo in which it too is enmeshed than does Brussels. Brexit seems like just another injection of entropy into a global system that is gyring out of control and is therefore to be resisted a priori — it may be right, but drowners do not usually make good decisions. They bob, they gasp, and they dig their heels into the shoulders of their mates in search of a breath of sky.


David Betz is Reader in Warfare in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His most recent book is Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power.

Image: Jeff Djevdet, CC