Theresa May’s announcement to formally invoke Brexit before March 2017 has set the table for what promises to be a long, protracted discussion between Britain and the European Union on the terms of their upcoming divorce and the foundations of their future relationship. Most continental European leaders insist on the need to dissociate those two questions and argue that the divorce must be formalized before any speculation on the future course of the relationship. May’s response is that an informal, exploratory conversation about the future could help smooth divorce settlement talks. Both positions seem to be driven by a negotiation logic in that the two parties want to exploit whatever leverage they feel they have and box the other into a corner. In other words, both Britain and its continental partners seem to think that this isn’t the time for musing about how much they need each other, but rather that it is the time to talk tough and appear uncompromising.
Any sort of analysis or prediction on the possible winners and losers of Brexit must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Everyone is in the dark. The upcoming negotiations will likely be mediated by domestic politics. Emotions may well end up clouding any inkling of a political vision or strategy on either side of the channel. As such, those same uncompromising but largely instrumental narratives and tactics could very well harden and develop a life of their own. That would make it seemingly difficult for the two parties to talk when the time comes — and come it will. David Cameron and his team experienced similar dynamics during their own Brexit gamble. The former prime minister’s public criticism of the European Union over the years, combined with his repeated assurances to the British public that he had yet to make up his own mind on a future in-or-out referendum, ended up undermining his case for remain when the chips fell down.
Given Britain’s historical role in underpinning the broader postwar regional order in which the European Union is embedded and the union’s importance to the functioning and stability of such order, both parties are likely to lose from an acrimonious Brexit. Before Britain and the European Union box themselves into a lose-lose path, it might be useful to try to think beyond the tactical and emotional aspects of Brexit and instead reflect on its likely geostrategic implications. What might Brexit mean for Britain’s position in Europe, for the future of European integration and, perhaps more importantly, for Europe’s evolving geopolitical architecture?
Britain, the European Union, and the Europe We Know
Traditionally, Britain’s foremost geopolitical objective in Europe has been the preservation of a balance of power on the continent, i.e. ensuring that no single European country achieves a dominant or even hegemonic regional geopolitical position. For the last century or so, the only two European countries that have had the potential to achieve a position of regional dominance have been Germany and Russia in their various forms and manifestations. Think of Wilhelmine Germany’s failed attempt at continental hegemony, of Nazi Germany’s infamous all-out bid on Europe, or of Soviet Russia actually managing to acquire and preserve an empire in much of eastern and central Europe and beyond throughout the Cold War.
Ever since the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763), Britain has prided itself on being the chief guardian of Europe’s geopolitical balances and architecture. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain played a key role in checking the European ambitions of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Britain proved most instrumental in the creation and operation of the Concert of Europe, a multilateral system widely credited with having preserved peace via a European balance throughout much of the 19th century. Britain also devoted great energy and treasure to thwarting Russia’s maritime aspirations by frustrating its efforts to dominate the Black Sea basin and break freely through the Eastern Mediterranean (think of the Crimean War), as well as its attempt to leverage its advantageous position in Central and South Asia to move against British India — a saga dubbed “the great game” by historians.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain played the role of conductor of sorts in a loose constellation of European powers united by their apprehension about the potential of the new Germany. It would take a world war for that entente to fully crystallize. And even with that, they needed the help of an extra European power — the United States — to deliver the knockout blow to Wilhelmine Germany. Things would never be the same for Britain or Europe. The benefit of hindsight seems to suggest that, during the interwar period, European volatility danced to the tune of U.S. isolationism, at least partly. It soon became clear that the kind of challenge that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia represented had simply grown too large to manage for a shrinking British Empire.
During and after World War II, U.S. engagement revealed itself critical to the preservation of the European balance. Throughout the Cold War, Soviet Russia’s geopolitical potential was contained through deterrence and West Germany’s was checked through engagement and integration within a broader U.S.-led, U.K.-inspired Western bloc. The geopolitical foundations of that “Western” (read: Anglo-American) design were eloquently expressed by Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, who pointed out that the key to the European balance laid in “keeping the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in.” That phrase would soon be appropriated by others in Europe and the West, to the point of becoming the mother of all clichés among students of international relations and geopolitical pundits. But it was a British phrase that expressed a British vision for Europe.
The importance of London’s postwar role in establishing the current European geopolitical architecture can hardly be overstated. Historian John Baylis famously documented the pivotal role that Britain played in setting the foundations of NATO by helping the United States overcome the temptation of isolationism after World War II and helping to further entrench U.S. power in Europe. The metaphor of Britain as a strategic and diplomatic bridge between Europe and America may well have also acquired the status of cliché for foreign policy wonks, but a good reason: Britain’s bridging role was and remains a structural feature of the Europe we know. In choosing to forget that, continental Europeans might be doing a disservice to the liberal, post-modern order they have come to take for granted and hold so dear. But when, where, and how does the European Union come into the picture?
As Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad has convincingly argued, European integration has always been an important tenet of that broader Anglo-American design for Europe. During the postwar years and later, Britain and the United States actively encouraged European economic integration in many different ways. Take Churchill’s precursory 1946 United States of Europe speech or America’s decision to tie postwar economic aid (i.e. the Marshall Plan) to regional economic cooperation. But Britain’s role in the making of the Europe we know was even greater than that. As a Cold War begun to emerge in the late 1940s, Washington and London came to the realization that West Germany’s reindustrialization and remilitarization were critical to the success of the broader Western effort to keep Soviet power at bay. France, still scarred by the memory of having just been overrun by Germany’s war machine, was on a rather different page, and instead insisted that West Germany be kept de-industrialized and demilitarized. So much for Franco-German reconciliation.
By advocating persistently for a re-setting of West Germany’s industrial and economic power, Britain and America set the foundations of West Germany’s socialization within the West. In a way, it could be argued that cooperation with West Germany was forced upon the French. In an environment in which France’s foreign policy choices were constrained by strategic decisions made in Washington and London, the 1950 Schuman Plan turned out to be a pragmatic and effective solution to French concerns about German power. Under the European Coal and Steel Community (the embryo of today’s European Union), West Germany surrendered control over the industries of the Ruhr Valley, which had allowed her to outperform and overrun France in the past. Bonn accepted subordination of its own industrial and economic development to a supranational High Authority (the historical predecessor of today’s European Commission). If European economic integration was the caveat to West Germany’s re-industrialization, integration within NATO’s military structure was the caveat to its re-militarization.
Historically, both Britain and America have thought of European integration as being strategically instrumental in at least in three important ways. First, by helping to generate economic prosperity and social stability in Western Europe, European integration would help strengthen capitalism and check the proliferation of communist ideas in Western Europe. That was particularly the case during the early postwar years. In other words, European integration helped keep the Russians out, both economically and ideologically. Second, European integration helped to foster political reconciliation between France and Germany, and it provided a multilateral path for West Germany’s postwar economic recovery and integration within the West. In other words, European integration did also contribute to that broader objective of keeping the Germans down and in (in the West, that is). Last but not least, by helping bring political stability and economic prosperity in Western Europe, European integration contributed to a regional climate attractive for U.S. investment and transatlantic trade, thus further entrenching the United States in Europe.
Enter Brexit, or Why Europe’s Future Might Not Be What It Used To
When seen through a broader historical prism, it becomes apparent that European integration has been instrumental in sheltering liberal democracy from authoritarian impulses, constraining European nationalism under an American security umbrella, and helping preserve a balance of power on the continent. We could argue all day as to whether the European Union presents a good track record in relation to such big-ticket geopolitical items. Some might say that NATO has done most of the heavy lifting. After the end of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher even said that the then-European Community augmented rather than constrained Germany’s economic and political power. This point appears to have been brought home by the European Union’s response to the latest financial and economic crisis, which visibly illustrated Germany’s evolving role from supervisee to supervisor.
Today, the prospect of U.S. strategic retrenchment, the shadow of German economic and political preeminence, and Russian efforts to re-create a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe could disrupt the European balance. A disorderly and acrimonious Brexit could well exacerbate some or all of those trends. It would therefore seem intuitive that Brexit could well end up undermining Britain’s ability to pursue its traditional regional and geopolitical objectives. Yet when discussing the possible implications of Brexit on Britain’s position in Europe, we ought not use the “European Union” and “Europe” interchangeably.
Whatever happens with Brexit, Britain is likely to remain very much engaged in Europe. One aspect of that engagement might be a more or less privileged relationship with the European Union. However, Britain’s ability to manipulate and affect the European balance is by no means limited to E.U. membership. NATO and bilateral relationships will continue to be key vehicles of British influence in Europe and doubling down on those could take Britain a long way toward mitigating a possible loss of geopolitical influence in Europe. Relatedly, if re-investing in its own military capabilities becomes part of the conversation on how to mitigate Brexit, then Brexit may end up bringing some rather positive effects for Britain after all. Besides, Brexit could force Britain’s governmental and intellectual elite to think more strategically about their country’s place in Europe and in the world. And it might help London dust off all the post-modern and bureaucratic baggage that often comes with E.U. membership, thus helping it rediscover its sense of self. At a time of mounting regional and global geopolitical uncertainty, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing either.
For all of the European Union’s pitfalls and shortcomings, European integration could well be one of the last bulwarks of the British-inspired postwar regional order, given the shadow of U.S. introspection and Russian revisionism looming large, the Middle East in full meltdown mode, and populism knocking on the old continent’s doors. Moreover, the European Union will likely have a direct impact upon some of the foreign policy issues that matter most to Britain. One of those is transatlantic cohesion, which will hinge in no small part upon the fate of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and upon Europe’s ability to take on a greater share of its own security burden. The European Union will play a pivotal role in the TTIP process and an important one in discussions on transatlantic burden-sharing. Another key question is whether the West’s recent efforts to stand up to Russian bullying, which Britain has helped orchestrate, will stand the test of time. Once again, the answer to that question will largely depend on the European Union’s evolving stance on sanctions, on the fate of its energy diversification agenda, or on its commitment to strengthening economic and political ties to its eastern neighbors, notably countries like Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova. Last but not least, European integration can remain instrumental in sheltering liberal democracy from authoritarian impulses at a time of rising populism. For these and arguably other reasons, Britain’s ability to effectively tackle some of the strategic challenges that matter most to it will partly hinge on its ability to remain closely engaged in ongoing European Union discussions on energy, trade, and foreign and defense policy.
Some seem to believe that the fact that there are things Britain needs from the European Union means it is at the mercy of Brussels. Britain’s destiny, so the story goes, is to be punished for Cameron’s fateful gamble and to be eternally thankful to her European partners for whatever breadcrumbs they decide to throw at her. This rhetoric is precisely the kind of shot in the foot that could set all Europeans on a lose-lose path. Surely, the last thing the European Union needs today is a resentful Britain poking around determined to convince continental Europeans that what divides them might well be greater than what unites them. It is therefore important to challenge a myth embraced by many in the continent, as well as by die-hard “remainers” in Britain that London possesses little or no leverage in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Europe’s main powers, especially Germany, must surely realize that the European Union is a fragile construction in a historically delicate situation. This gives London leverage and arguably invalidates any sort of argument about the need to punish Britain. Moreover, at a time of mounting strategic uncertainty in Europe and beyond, and with the fulcrum of global wealth and power shifting further away from the old continent, Britain’s global and extrovert approach to foreign and security policy might be the right antidote against the kind of risk-averse and parochial foreign policy culture that pervades much of Europe.
Britain and the European Union do need each other. And yet, as discussions on the nuts and bolts of Brexit continue to unfold over the coming months and years, there is a serious risk that considerations related to domestic politics and negotiation tactics may lock the two parties into a lose-lose path. In order to avoid that, Britain and its continental partners should move past talk of punishment and instead think hard about how to re-set the foundations of a deep and constructive relationship, one that accommodates Britain within the single European market and its associated decision-making structures and keeps it closely involved in the ongoing development of the European Union’s foreign and defense policies. The Europe we know may well be on the line.
Luis Simón is Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College).