© 2017 SCER
Europe is watching the spectacle of Brexit with horrified fascination. ‘How is it,’ ask friends and colleagues in Brussels, ‘that a nation of pragmatists can tear itself apart over ideologies?’
They also ask why the British, with their centuries-old history of worldwide influence and adventure, now focus so intently on the pettifogging details of intra-European trade and regulation, and ignore the fact that it is the geopolitical picture that counts most of all.
Good questions. Brexit is dazzling the whole of Europe, not just the British, so they no longer see the woods for the trees. But even if the EU’s detractors think it’s about red tape, the European project is really about the big picture. With the 21st century now getting fully into its stride, it is clearer than ever that the EU’s continued economic and political integration is crucial to defending its member countries’ interests in a globalising world.
Brexit’s focus on minutiae is an unnecessary distraction from the more pressing challenges Europe, including the UK, must meet. No single European nation has the resources and the clout to stand up on its own to China, America or Russia, so unity is crucial to Europe’s security and well-being.
The dangerously unpredictable initiatives of the Trump administration call for solid and unambiguous responses from the EU. Whether it’s Trump’s trade war with China or his threatened torpedoing of the Iran nuclear deal, the EU27 will be forced to define its position vis-à-vis these major issues.
Brexit should therefore be seen as a useful wake-up call. Most EU countries had grown used to slipstreaming behind London, Paris and latterly Berlin on foreign policy issues. Now, circumstances in the shapes of Trump, Putin and Xi, are bringing big geopolitical issues to the fore, and the EU can no longer fudge its stance.
When the UK voted to leave the EU, some Brexiteers believed Britain’s departure would prompt other countries to follow. Instead, it led to a mood of renewed solidarity among member governments for, in spite of Eurosceptic populism in a number of countries, the value of EU membership is highlighted by Brexit. There is also a sense that now the EU is to be freed of British foot-dragging, it can move ahead to confront its biggest problems. That is, though, easier said than done.
Conflict and growing instability in the Middle East, Russian assertiveness that is increasingly combative, and the multiplying uncertainties of US policymaking are not the EU’s only pressing difficulties. It is urgent to move eurozone governance ahead with new political underpinnings but wider debt obligations, although there’s still little sign that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel can reconcile their countries’ differences.
The pressures for splitting the EU into a two-tier arrangement of committed federalist countries and the others are still strong, made stronger still by the refusal of the four Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – to toe the EU line on issues ranging from civil rights to migrant burden-sharing.
On top of these divisive questions, there’s that of the EU’s future. Should its top jobs be handed out in the present untransparent manner, or has the time come to transform the EU’s ramshackle structure into a coherent democratic institution – even though that could undermine the authority of its member states?
All these challenges should be reducing the issues surrounding Brexit to small print in the Brussels agenda. Instead of trading arrangements, it’s how the British government, with its precarious parliamentary position, will be able to cooperate with the EU on geopolitical issues that is far more important.
So far, these questions haven’t been crystallised into a clear-cut political narrative on the EU side, and certainly not on the part of the British government. It’s time they were.
This article is co-published with Friends of Europe
Friends of Europe
Giles Merritt is founder and Chairman of the think tank Friends of Europe and its policy journal, Europe’s World. He was foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and is Advisory Board member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations