Brexit has proven to be a despondent episode of self-induced political breakdown. One of its less remarked consequences has been the hastening of the UK’s geopolitical decline.
This trend was already accelerating due to the UK’s growing global passivity. Whether the Ukrainian conflict with Russia or the Syrian refugee crisis, successive UK governments in recent years have not played the kind of active role that once would have been expected.
Despite the relentless focus of Brexiteers on putative trade deals, international politics is not just about commerce – nor is EU membership only about the single market.
Brexit diminishes the UK’s standing in the world by distancing it from its natural European allies and calling into question its commitment to multilateralism.
Pronouncements of a ‘global Britain’ mean very little when in practice the UK stands ready to walk away from one of the world’s most successful multinational organisations.
Westminster appears largely oblivious to these global consequences, consumed as it has been with debating the degrees of damage to inflict through different forms of Brexit.
By contrast, the rest of the EU is acutely aware of the negative impact that Brexit would have on Europe’s geopolitical position. The UK was an authoritative voice in setting the EU’s foreign policy, an area where it made a major contribution.
It would be difficult to meaningfully replicate that cooperation with the UK outside the EU, leading to reduced collective influence in the European neighbourhood and further afield.
Macron’s ambitions for EU
While the remaining EU27 countries still regret the UK’s decision to leave the EU, they accepted it long ago. They have sought to navigate a difficult path throughout the Brexit process, balancing their principles and the desire to have a close relationship with the UK.
However, the UK’s track record on Brexit has led to an erosion of trust between the two sides. The chaotic politics in Westminster has led to growing frustration and dismay. Fears that the UK might abandon common labour, environmental and social standards will make it harder to prevent a more distant future relationship.
The EU27 have been remarkably united on Brexit. They have attempted to shepherd an increasingly confused UK through a process they did not want to see happen, while leaving the door open for the UK to change its mind.
European Council president Donald Tusk, in brokering successive extensions to Article 50, argued the EU should not force the UK into a no-deal Brexit. Most national leaders agree, but French president Emmanuel Macron in particular has been sceptical.
Macron has an ambitious vision for the EU and feels that prolonging Brexit distracts from it. His projects, such as a eurozone budget and multi-country MEPs, and his talk of turning the EU into a geopolitical power already reflect a post-Brexit EU.
A definitive resolution
The new EU leadership, including the next European Commission president, would undoubtedly have been much different if the UK were still a functioning member state. For all its awkwardness, the UK’s participation in the EU made it more balanced.
The EU will be quietly hopeful that the upcoming general election brings a definitive resolution to Brexit. Recent history suggests minimal cause for such optimism.
By December, Tusk will have been replaced by Charles Michel, the outgoing Belgian prime minister, who is more aligned with Macron’s way of thinking. If the UK ends up requesting a further extension, even for a referendum, it is not guaranteed the EU27 will agree.
In today’s world, the European Union is the best chance its members have to shape global affairs.
With Brexit, the UK forfeits its place in European cooperation and simultaneously damages the rest of the EU. Many in the EU27 find it hard to believe the UK still shares the same priorities that they used to have in common.
That growing disconnect does not bode well for the future EU-UK relationship. Outside the EU, the UK would be significantly diminished on the world’s stage. With its current political state, the UK is already struggling to have a meaningful international role at all.
Anthony Salamone is managing director of political consultancy European Merchants