Rosa Balfour / Feb 2020
On 1 February, some in Europe breathed a sigh of relief: that difficult partner, the UK, no longer sits at the EU decision-making tables, blocking initiatives, demanding rebates, and make life hard for European federalists. Privately, the view that once the UK is finally out the EU can ‘get on with things’ is common though few would express it publicly. Britain’s reputation as ‘an awkward partner’ (the title of Stephen George’s 1990 book on British membership to the EU) coupled with its retreat from Brussels life during the past few years have cast a shadow on what Britain contributed to European integration. This will be missed unless the EU takes the opportunity to change.
Aside from the most obvious example, the Single Market, the UK has played a shaping role on European foreign and security policy. However staunchly in favour of the primacy of NATO over EU defence, the UK and France have been the two countries pushing for more cooperation in European security and defence policy. On foreign affairs the influence of Britain has been less ambiguous: as a country with a top-notch diplomatic capacity and global vision, London has repeatedly supported a stronger EU in relations with neighbours. Enlargement, one of the EU’s most successful policies, was driven by British ambitions to stabilize the Balkans and to forge better ties with Turkey. On topics that divide continental Europeans, such as Russia and the Middle East, Britain has offered unequivocal guidance. It provided balance and synthesis between France and Germany, and been a listening ear to Central Europeans.
Back in 2003, when the EU split over military intervention in Iraq, Britain was joined by most EU member states and those about to join the EU in supporting the US. It was a fatal decision for the Middle East of which the whole region is still paying the consequences, but Britain’s position reflected the majority position in Europe – however much one may have disagreed with it.
Indeed, even those who are relieved to see Britain leave want the country to cooperate closely on foreign and security policy – French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal of a European Security Council reflects the preoccupation of Europe’s loss of global clout and capacity. Of course, operational cooperation is possible and desirable, for instance on sanctions. But if the EU wants a good working relationship with Britain, especially on foreign and security policy where it most needs it, it needs to conduct negotiations with a view to building a new friendship, not just a divorce.
In this preparation phase to the negotiations, much posturing and chest-beating is taking place, and the positioning of the new government does not bode well so far: Brexit-bent Britain bankrolled by hedge funds and other parts of the financial sector, elected by rural England, and flirting with Donald Trump seems to have more influence on the government than manufacturing Britain and the sectors most integrated into the European economy, the cities, and Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Even if the government’s gamble on a new economic model based on technological innovation and trade with others were to succeed, the EU should play all its cards to improve its relationship not just with the British government, but also with half of Britain that sees itself as part of Europe. To do this, it may want to think about the future relationship as a package that includes many areas for cooperation rather than a trade deal.
The EU should also take the opportunity to acknowledge the reasons behind Brexit to change and reform itself. It may be that Britain is unique in its relationship with the continent and that Brussels, also through its negotiations with London, will succeed in discouraging any other member state from leaving. It is also remarkable how the EU reunited around Brexit and stood by Ireland. But its member states are quarreling over everything else. Indeed, Brexit itself is also a consequence of poor EU performance in the face of crises – from the Eurozone management to the refugee influx, both of which influenced the debate in Britain in the run-up to the referendum. In Britain many who voted to leave saw the EU as a sinking ship which needed to be abandoned.
The EU should transform the negative and destructive event of Britain’s departure into an opportunity to address its outstanding gaps and cleavages, starting from the centripetal distortion of the Eurozone. Making Europe’s core and periphery converge more strongly is a vital step if there is ambition behind the slogan of a ‘geopolitical’ Commission. Embarking on a new future-oriented project, such as a green new deal which adjusts the inequalities of austerity, can revitalize the EU, but will require bravery and vision. Doing so with friends next door would be wise.