Comment

Is the UK choosing between the EU and the US?

Tim Bale / Jun 2021

Image: Shutterstock

Writing as the 20th century turned into the 21st, Andrew Gamble argued that Margaret Thatcher had ‘legitimated opposition to Europe’ by suggesting ‘that there was an alternative’: ‘the English adventure’, she averred,

'was not over, provided English sovereignty was not given up. Priority should be given to America over Europe, because this was the guarantee of preserving an open seas, open trade policy, cultivating links with all parts of the world….True internationalism, she argued, meant avoiding entanglement with a protectionist, inward-looking, interventionist, high cost continental economy'.

Two decades later, we know her words proved persuasive. But does Brexit mean that the UK has finally made the choice that leant Gamble his title, Between Europe and America? Or is the country destined forever to oscillate between them?

The early indications suggest the latter rather than the former. Indeed, the Conservatives– for all that the majority of their MPs can be classified as Brexiteers, as Atlanticists, as neoliberals, and therefore as Thatcherites – continue to hope (not necessarily irrationally and very much in keeping with their leader’s oft-quoted mantra) that they can have their cake and eat it too.

On trade, even ‘hard’ Brexit can hardly be said, in the light of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed in December 2020, to represent a ‘clean break’ with the EU.

True the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently generating serious tensions between Brussels and London. And the UK government also insists on trumpeting its supposed successes in negotiating trade deals with other countries.

But the Biden administration has made it abundantly clear this week that if the UK is to stand any chance of progressing a free trade agreement with the US (something of a holy grail for Brexiteers), then it will need to stick to its commitments under the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. And even if such an agreement is eventually reached, the most optimistic official estimate of the resulting increase to UK GDP puts it at no more than 0.36% - nice to have, admittedly, but nowhere near the value added by its continued trade with Europe.

As for foreign and defence policy, while the Johnson government’s recently published ‘integrated review’, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, declares that ‘[t]he United States will remain the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner’ and hints at an ‘indo-Pacific tilt’, the reality behind the rhetoric is more familiar.

Admittedly, the review makes a rather desperate attempt, across a range of areas ranging from defence, cybersecurity and sanctions, to paint the EU qua EU out of the picture. But even it is forced to concede that ‘we will work with the EU where our interests coincide – for example, in supporting the stability and security of the European continent and in cooperating on climate action and biodiversity.’

Moreover, ‘[t]he Euro-Atlantic region will remain critical to the UK’s security and prosperity’. In this respect, not only are bilateral relationships with various EU member states mentioned but so, too, are interoperability and participation in the Joint Expeditionary Force. NATO clearly comes first; but the OSCE and the Council of Europe get honourable mentions too. In short, geopolitically, this is not some sort of grand ‘Goodbye to Europe.’

But what about political economy? Surely Brexit, at the very least, will see the Conservative Party finally purging the UK of any last remaining vestiges of continental social democracy so it can hare off in pursuit of full-blown, Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism?

So far, anyway, the answer appears to be no. Talk of the Treasury’s spending taps being left on even after the pandemic may well be premature. But rather than paring back employment rights, freeing British firms from corporate responsibilities, slashing taxes, and generally preparing for a race to the bottom, all the talk is of the state having a greater role in building infrastructure and seeding innovation.

Moreover the Conservative’s new electoral coalition – built, it is vital to recall, not on Brexit alone but on the promise to former Labour (and UKIP) voters that Brexit will mean greater public spending aimed at ‘levelling up’ left-behind parts of provincial England – will make it trickier than ever to transform the UK into Anglo-America.

Ultimately, a middle-ranking island-nation situated just off the northwest coast of the European landmass – and one whose glory days are very much behind it – can neither deny nor defy the realities of geography and the laws (such as they are) of economics.

‘Gravity’ means that the EU will remain the UK’s most important trading partner. And the threat posed by Russia means that it will always need to look first to the defence of the continent of which it is a part even as it takes an interest in matters further afield. Meanwhile, the evidence from other economies of what works, as well as an electorate that has grown to expect the state to provide more than a mere safety net, renders further (neo)liberalisation economically and electorally risky.

So, while some Conservatives will always look longingly across the Atlantic, the continent across the North Sea and the English Channel cannot help but continue to count.

 

A longer version of this article can be found here.

 

Tim Bale

Tim Bale

June 2021

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