Britain and our European neighbours share at least one thing in common. There are times when neither of us can see the wood for the trees.
The past two years of Brexit negotiations have been consumed by interminable exchanges on budget contributions, internal markets, WTO rules and financial services.
We are left with the wider world assuming that Napoleon was right and that we are, after all, a nation of shopkeepers and not much else. It also implies the same for the French and the Germans, who seem to be having much the same obsessions.
But, in the longer term, the greatest challenge of Brexit may not be trade but peace and security in Europe.
A deal of some kind with the EU remains highly likely but is not certain. Equally uncertain, however, is whether, through benign neglect, both we and the EU allow Europe as a whole to be weakened in a globalising world and our joint security to be compromised at a time when Russia is resurgent and China is emerging as the new superpower. It is, of course, Britain, through our referendum decision to leave the EU that bears the prime responsibility for this serious threat having emerged, but the EU nations have as much interest as we do in dealing with it.
There are two separate dimensions to the geopolitical challenge we will face. The first is the defence and security of Europe at a time when Vladimir Putin is a serious menace and Donald Trump is, at best, ambivalent about his commitment to Nato and the defence of Europe.
The second issue is whether Europe’s voice in the wider world will be heard and listened to by the US, China, Russia and other global powers when an emerging common EU foreign policy will no longer have the military weight and diplomatic experience of the United Kingdom to support it. It is not only the UK that now risks irrelevance in global foreign and security policy, it is the European Union as well.
Some take comfort from the fact that the military defence of Europe is the responsibility of Nato and not the EU and that this will not be directly affected by Brexit. That has considerable truth if it comes to a stark question of peace or war.
Yet the security of Britain and Europe does not depend on Nato alone. It requires, also, political stability, economic growth and diplomatic strength.
It also requires the closest European co-operation in ensuring that Europe’s military capability is of the highest order. Without the UK any longer able to veto it, EU countries may now wish to go forward with their proposal to have a EU command and control headquarters operating alongside Nato, to handle relatively modest military operations in support of the UN or for humanitarian purposes. This is a proposal that Washington has opposed. Time will tell whether such a change would help or harm Nato.
Even more important will be European countries, including the UK, drawing closer together to maximise their combat and deterrence capability, both to support the US as part of Nato or, in the longer term, to ensure Europe’s ability to defend itself if US resolve were ever to weaken. Such a strengthening of Europe’s military capability is quite simply impossible without the direct involvement of the UK.
Together with France, we are Europe’s sole possessors of nuclear weapons without which an aggressive Russia could blackmail Europe over the decades ahead. Furthermore, global trade and economic security requires European nations to have the capability to protect their own territorial seas, and our common merchant sea lanes in the Atlantic, the Gulf and elsewhere.
The Royal Navy, even in its current reduced state, remains Europe’s paramount naval and maritime power; a position that will be further enhanced when the two new aircraft carriers come into service.
The second strategic issue is how Europe is to project its foreign policy interests in the wider world unless the UK is around the table with Germany, France and other European states when crisis issues are being discussed. The two great successes of European foreign policy have been the financial sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine, and Europe’s sanctions on Iran that helped make possible the nuclear deal with that country. Neither could have been achieved without the City of London’s financial strength and involvement.
The Iran deal was negotiated by the permanent members of the UN security council. But Germany was, also, included, in a 5+1 group, to demonstrate to Iran the unity of the international community. In the same way there will need to be a EU+UK forum available when future crises need to be addressed.
It is more than a truism to say that Britain is leaving the EU but not leaving Europe. Long before the EU existed, Britain always joined with other European nations to prevent tyranny or aggression in Europe. We helped defeat Napoleon in 1815, rather than assuming that it was nothing to do with us. We declared war on the Kaiser, who hoped we would stay neutral, in 1914 and on Hitler in 1939. We did so not because we faced invasion at the beginning of those crises but because we recognised that there is no strategic threat to continental Europe that is not also a threat to the UK.
Britain’s strategic interests will not change in 2019 when we leave the EU. They will remain the same as those of France and Germany. That is the geopolitical reality that neither we nor our EU partners must ever forget.
Whether the UK is in the EU or outside it, Britain needs Europe and Europe needs Britain if we are to maximise our diplomatic strength in a wider world that will be, increasingly, dominated by Americans, Chinese and Russians.
It was once remarked that lawyers and missionaries make the worst diplomats because with law and faith it is difficult to make the necessary compromises. That is why we have politicians. That is why Angela Merkel and Emannuel Macron, as well as Theresa May, must be flexible and must compromise. If the “rules” make that difficult, change the rules.
As Churchill remarked, politicians should never commit suicide as they might live to regret it.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary between 1992 and 1997