hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit: Some Personal Reflections

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 June. It is 30 hours or so since Britain’s historic decision to leave the EU and the fallout and backlash is just beginning. What do I feel now about Brexit? Over those hours I have been saddened but little shocked by the vitriol sent my way. One email even suggested that Britain has become an enemy of Europe, whatever that means. Emails have been refused, and one good friendship lost, which I regret. But don’t worry, I can take it. After all, I am cut from the same Yorkshire oak as the many of the people that drove this decision, and I have always taken responsibility for my writings.

I am an analyst and my job is to analyse. Back in 2010 I did believe Britain should leave the EU. Britain was mired in a massive banking crisis, and the Eurozone was mired in a massive debt crisis. The Eurozone faced a choice; integrate or collapse. Britain did not face such a choice.

Back then it was clear to my mind that the only way for the Eurozone to resolve the crisis, and indeed make the Euro work was a deepening of European political and monetary union, including a banking union. Eurozone leaders still face that choice, they just haven’t taken it. And so the Eurozone crisis bubbles away below a thin crust of apparent political stability ready to explode at any moment. Given that Britain was never going to part of deeper political integration my on balance sense was that back then Britain should leave the EU.

What has I admit irritated me throughout this entire intervening period is the extent to which some senior Americans have treated my country as a strategic public convenience; Britain and the British people as mere instrument of American grand strategy. In so doing they have denied that Britain is a living, breathing democracy with its own issues, and its own tensions, its own interests, and its own political identity. The Obama administration has routinely dismissed British concerns about the direction of travel of the EU as some kind of post-Imperial psychosis rather than seen such concerns for what they are; a complex reflection of the same distrust of distant power that drove their own revolution back in 1776, and about which Americans are so proud. Indeed, far from backing British calls for EU reform the Obama Administration tried to force Britain into into simply accepting a status quo that was never sustainable over the longer term. Still, one can hardly blame the Americans for that Little Britain view of Britain. Too many needy British leaders have convinced American leaders to think of Britain as little more than an American strategic public convenience.

Several events led me to shift my position on the EU. The outbreak of the Syrian war and the emergence of ISIS began to change the strategic environment in which Britain and Europe reside, and threatened the collapse of states across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2014 Russia seized Crimea and began the long dissection of Ukraine which continues to this day. Moscow also began to threaten and intimidate Central, Eastern and Northern Europe. Huge flows of desperate people forced their way into Europe and compounded the many problems faced by countries in southern Europe. In November 2015 ISIS terrorists attacked Paris and then Brussels. Whilst I retained some sympathy for the frustrations many feel in Britain about the EU. and the way it is run, in such circumstances I could not countenance Britain leaving the EU.
There will be some Americans who will also blame Brexit for the weakening of NATO. OK, I will admit that there can be no EU Common Security and Defence Policy worthy of the name without Britain. But then, there never was going to be a truly ‘C’ CSDP with Britain because to make the ‘C’ word mean something a European government would be required. How many of you out there really want a European government? Your call.

As for NATO it is not Britain that has weakened the Alliance. After all, under NATO rules the British are one of of only four Allies who actually meet the target of 2% GDP to be spent on defence with 20% on new equipment. If there is any one factor that has prevented so many Allies meeting what should be a minimum commitment to the Alliance it is the Eurozone rule that prevents a state ratcheting up a budget deficit of more than 3% GDP, even at a time of crisis.  Don’t blame Britain for that.
Next week President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel will hold one of their directoire meetings to discuss the post-Brexit EU. Years ago I called for a trirectoire and the inclusion of British prime ministers in such meetings. After all, Britain is Europe’s second biggest economy and strongest military power. That call was rejected. It has always seemed to me one of the EU’s many contradictions how European ‘integration’ has always been defined by two major powers and their national interests in the name of ‘Europe’.

Here’s the irony. At that meeting Merkel and Hollande will call for a more flexible Europe. They will not agree on much else. Had they done that even a few days ago they may have swung enough undecided British voters (you know the people who are meant to matter, but to much of the elite do not) to back Remain.

Brexit also marks a moment of opportunity. With Britain about to leave the EU we will see just how enthusiastic those Europeans (and Americans) who have long blamed Britain for blocking ‘progress’ really are for some form of United States of Europe. This is your moment, guys. No longer can you Euro-federalists blame us British for blocking your glorious Project Europe. I suspect, however, we will soon discover just how many of you do not actually want ever closer political union.

Brexit was long in the making, but too many refused to see it coming. Read my blogs and other writings and I warned people that Brexit could happen because for years Britain and the Real EU, the Eurozone, have been drifting apart. Brexit has now formalised what for a long time has been an observable fact on the ground. Indeed, those that argued that by remaining in the EU Britain would be upholding the status quo were talking as much rubbish as those that argued leaving would mark the start of a new Elizabethan age for Britain, or more accurately England. The EU was never going to, nor could it ever, remain where it is today; trapped between debt, integration, and impotence.

So, we all have a choice to make right now. If the blame game of the past 24 hours gathers pace then Brexit will indeed weaken Europe, Britain and the West and there will be no winners at all. If, however, common sense prevails and a period of calm reflection is then followed by sober considerations of how best to proceed mutually beneficial outcomes can be crafted and at least some positives will come out of this mess. The next two and a half years would then be about the nature of Britain’s future relationship with a future EU. Good sense would ensure such a relationship works for all – Britons (even Scots), other Europeans, and even Americans.

As for Britain as enemy, really? There are plenty of those elsewhere. So, keep calm and carry on talking.

Julian Lindley-French        

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