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January 19, 2021

Brexit and EU foreign policy

Two days ago, the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 of the EU treaty, starting the negotiations to exit the European Union. Namely, practically speaking, the move has been made toward implementing Brexit, toward applying the decision of the British voters who took part in last year’s June referendum. Brexit will undoubtedly have a remarkable impact on both the UK and the EU.

Already, in the UK it is said that a new referendum for the independence of Scotland can no longer be avoided, and the possibility of a similar secession in Northern Ireland is not far. Forecasts on the recreation of a Commonwealth 2.0 through a series of bilateral free trade treaties are undoubtedly pessimistic, although the “global UK” scenario is still in vogue. However, leaving aside Brexit’s impact on the United Kingdom, the influence that this country’s exit from the EU will have on the European organisation requires assessment, especially since the UK is an extremely powerful country, one of the big contributors to the Union’s budget, a hub for global finance, and has an innovation potential matched by few others. A significant dossier which garners preoccupation in these circumstances is the one concerning Brexit’s influence on the EU’s foreign and security policy, the British contribution in this domain being recognised as having remarkable traction within the organisation.

Today, Europe must handle multiple threats. In the East, Russia rises in an asserting fashion, militarising the Black Sea and thus engaging in competition with NATO and the EU, showing, by occupying Crimea and destabilising eastern Ukraine, that it wants to have the continent’s balance of power re-discussed. In the face of this threat, in the huge area from the Baltic to the Black Sea, NATO adopted an attitude meant to deter a new aggressive move by Russia in Eastern Europe, academic scenarios identifying one of the Baltic states as possible target over the short term. In the South, the threats are multiple and urgent alike. In Syria, the civil war shows no sign of abetting and seems to lengthen with all the consequences seen so far, particularly the rise in the people’s exodus.

The obliteration of the so-called Islamic Caliphate, still covering smaller territories in Syria and Iraq, will probably take up a significant part of the immediate future, and the current attitude of Turkey, threatened with destabilisation precisely because of international jihad, may no longer be able to prevent a new wave of refugees moving North, toward the rich European states, as more than 1 million people previously did in 2015. Similarly, it becomes worrisome for Europe where the ISIL fighters dislodged from Syria and Iraq will head, more precisely where they will try to rebuild a new “Caliphate” – in Libya or somewhere else in Northern Africa – generating new destabilisations on Europe’s southern belt. Last but not least, one has to mention the attitude – yet to be fully clarified – of the new Trump administration in the U.S., which, while now declaring itself a firm backer of NATO, is not openly saying the same about the existence of the EU but applauds Brexit.

In this extremely volatile international context, in which the EU’s foreign policy must define itself according to the directions indicated by the EU’s new security strategy undertaken last year – setting a path toward the status of global actor as level of ambition (November 2016) – it is interesting to “read” some European experts’ opinions on this issue. After all, the EU’s security policy depends on the organisation’s external orientations, hence, to question Brexit’s influence on this sensitive domain of overwhelming importance for the EU is a first clue about the path to be followed. Especially since, through Brexit, the EU is losing not just an important economic component, but in the foreign policy domain it will generate the lack of a qualified global vision for Europe, just as it is obvious that the absence of dual-use (military-civilian) capabilities that the UK has will be felt in times of need. Hence, what influence will Brexit have on the EU’s foreign policy?

The experts approached by ‘Carnegie Europe’ answered this question and their opinions were published on the day London triggered Article 50 (March 29).

Firstly, these experts, almost without exception, pointed out that the negotiations – expected to last maybe more than the two years legally entailed – will considerably hinder the European organisation’s focus on the great challenges that lie ahead. In what concerns the forecasts expressed, the pragmatists stand out, namely those who adhere to the current of ideas according to which, despite this discouraging context, Europe will have and will manage to handle the great challenges lying ahead. The determinant argument of this current is that the EU needs the UK and vice versa, an expression not only of historical tradition but also of geographic reality. Jonathan Eyal, the well-known commentator of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), stated that in order to respond to the great geopolitical challenges, the UK remains an earnest partner of the EU, being imperative for the two sides to reach agreement on this topic as soon as possible. J. Eyel clearly states that “Britain’s continued involvement in EU foreign and security policies is a matter that needs to be settled quickly.” And Eyel continues by pointing out the path for the attainment of this strategic goal: “This is not a question of trading off British military support in return for trade concessions, but merely an acceptance that on foreign policy and security matters, Britain and the EU need each other in equal measure.” Similarly, another expert asks the decision-makers to have in mind mainly the imperatives of the European continent as a whole, thus managing to also regain the support of the citizens: “Decision makers should focus on what are—or ought to be—Europe’s strengths: functional cooperation for mutual gain; an appreciation of pluralism, including by valuing dissenting opinions; and a commitment to a long-term perspective. On this basis, the EU will be able to regain its citizens’ support.” (Cornelius Adebahr, non-resident fellow at Carnegie Europe).

The second trend standing out among the experts queried is the sceptical one, based on the premise that Brexit represents a blow to the EU, that the strongest European army abandoning the continent substantially weakens the EU, and the organisation’s geopolitical scope proportionally diminishes, just as the UK’s. Denis MacShane, former UK Minister for Europe, considers that “All of Europe is weakened by Britain leaving the EU./…/ the EU minus Britain is weaker, and Britain outside the EU will be a diminishing geopolitical player.” The British experts concludes that “A Europe disunited because of Brexit loses foreign policy clout as Britain shrinks and is diminished in power and authority.” Kirsty Hughes, Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, shares an almost similar outlook, deeming that “Any UK contribution to the EU’s foreign policy after Brexit is going to be even weaker and more limited than in recent years,” since in the United Kingdom solving the great dossiers generated by Brexit will be the main concern in the following years. Finally, we also note an outlook that is both optimistic and pessimistic. Namely the one expressed by Richard G. Whitman, Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Director of the Global Europe Centre, for whom the EU’s ability to maintain the UK closely connected to the EU’s foreign and security policy also represents a test for the European organisation’s viability. Indeed – this expert says –, the UK leaving the EU can prompt a considerable weakening of the EU’s foreign and security policy – not to say more –, but keeping London closely linked to Europe “would illustrate that the EU has the capacity not only to protect its interests but also to turn a crisis into a success.”

A conclusion: at the start of the process of implementing Article 50, one of the burning questions – for both the EU and the UK – is how will Europe’s foreign and security policy evolve. And this is due both to the fact that today there are multiple challenges that Europe must face, and to the fact that they are the same challenges for the United Kingdom too.

In other words, to reiterate J. Eyal’s idea, the UK needs Europe, and the EU needs the UK. Undeniably, the UK and the EU will not be able to evade geographic facts, but there is the need for both to take into account this imperative geographic exigency in order to efficiently and jointly respond to the future and its dangers. Hence, London, Berlin and Paris, Brussels, Rome, Madrid, Warsaw or Bucharest alike must take into account this geographic commandment that is so obvious: for the EU and the UK, the distance between them is much smaller in a world globalised at an accelerated rate than the distance that separates them from Russia, the U.S. or China.


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