Alphen, Netherlands. 24 November. In January 2016 I stood in the snow near Trakai, Lithuania and made an important decision. In spite of my profound concerns about the EU and the future direction of travel towards an over-centralised ‘Europe’, as the Commission endeavoured to build its ‘tower’ ever closer to Euro-heaven, and the danger it poses to substantive democracy on the Continent I would reject Brexit. My decision came after listening to H.E. Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, at the famous Snowmeeting. At that moment I became a ‘Big Picture Remainer’ and decided geopolitics, particularly the threat posed by Russia to my friends in the Baltic States, Poland and elsewhere trumped my concerns about who governs me. I have not changed my position. However, I now fear for the Brexit humiliation of Britain and the geopolitical consequences that will ensue.
Yesterday, I read carefully the 20 November Brexit speech Chief EU Negotiator Michel Barnier made to a Brussels conference organised by Charles Grant’s Centre for European Reform. Now, I know that M. Barnier is at the negotiating schwerpunkt of Brexit and that he has ambitions to become the next President of the European Commission. And, for much of the speech he merely stated the obvious – “Brexit must mean Brexit” and the “orderly withdrawal” of Britain from the EU must see solutions found for the divorce bill, citizens’ rights, the inner-Irish border, and so-called ‘pass-porting rights’ for banks based in the City of London post-Brexit.
However, by far the most unconvincing part of his speech was when he said his objective was not to punish Britain. Yes, it is. As former Minister and TV pundit Michael Portillo said last night, Barnier’s aim is to discourage others from making “a break for the prison walls”. Now, I might use different language but Barnier and his colleagues of course need to be seen to punish Britain if for no other reason…pour encourager les autres. Indeed, to the EU Britain has become a latter day Admiral Byng.
This morning Prime Minister May is in Brussels to discuss with European Council President Donald Tusk upping the Brexit divorce bill to some £40bn in return for a written commitment that the EU will begin trade talks. Good luck with that. She is also there to attend the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit (I wonder if in future there will be EU Western Partnership summits) with six states, as the name suggests, to the east of the EU. May will not only confirm, and rightly so, that Britain will maintain its commitment to the security and defence of Eastern Europe post-Brexit, she will also offer some £100m of British taxpayer’s money to counter disinformation in the region.
So, all well and good? No. First, beyond the liberal chattering classes one finds in London, British think-tanks, and politically mono-cultural EUtopian British universities there is growing public anger at what is perceived as the Brexit humiliation of Britain by the EU. Mine is not a scientific survey but the more ‘ordinary’ Brits to whom I speak, both erstwhile Brexiteers and Remainers, I detect growing anger as what many see now as an attack on Britain. Whatever May and the Establishment say it could well become very hard to convince British citizens to risk geld and lives for what one called those, “bastards trying to damage us”. They thought democracy meant they had a legitimate choice.
Second, if one examines ‘planned’ cuts to the British armed forces under the forthcoming National Security Capability Review that National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill is conducting, much of the axe will (again) fall on those very high-end expeditionary forces needed to defend allies in an emergency, such as the Royal Marines. Given the cuts it is hard to escape the impression that Britain is retreating behind its nuclear deterrent. After all, Britain is a nuclear island power.
Third, will Britain’s expeditionary spirit survive Brexit and Trump? In an email exchange this week with a very close friend, who happens also to be a former US Ambassador to NATO, he warned me to get used to the end of the ‘special relationship’ with the Americans and recognise that henceforth London can expect no more than a “transactional relationship” with Washington. By way of return, Washington had better get used to the British being 'non-actional'. The only thing that has been keeping Britain’s expeditionary spirit alive these past decades is history and the demand by the Americans for British support. If the Americans don’t give a damn about Britain, and Europeans simply want to damn Britain, and a significant part of the population does not believe in British military power anyway then beyond the inevitably rhetorical we could be witnessing the beginning of the end, if not the very end, of British expeditionary internationalism.
On Monday I will launch the massive GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report at NATO HQ. As a member of a high-level Steering Committee I am proud of the work we have done looking to the future of NATO and the many papers that have been produced under the orb of the project by some of the West’s best strategists. And yet, I cannot but feel a sense of foreboding, particularly concerning four of the central assumptions that underpin the Alliance. Firstly, that the Americans will really remain committed to NATO and the defence of Europe in the future. Secondly, that Europeans really will spend enough on defence, and organise sufficiently well, to justify the American taxpayer continuing to guarantee European security and defence. Thirdly, that NATO and the EU really will forge an effective partnership that will ensure sound security across the conflict spectrum. Fourthly, that in spite of Britain’s Brexit humiliation, a country which remains for the moment a leading economic and military power, will also remain not only committed to the defence of Europe, but able to play its full and appropriate role in defending Europe. Much of that role will also rely on a continuing close strategic relationship between London and Paris. However, as my well-placed sources tell me, Paris under President Macron is in the vanguard of those EU countries wanting to punish/damage Britain for Brexit. Pas bon, mes amis!
To conclude, I remain a ‘Big Picture Remainer’. However, the simple geopolitical truth is it is impossible to separate Brexit from the EU from European defence from NATO. Let’s hope a Brexit breakthrough is made this December, even though with Germany in such a political shambles it is hard to see how such a leap forward can take place. If the current tensions pertain for too long then not only will the EU lose Britain, but also I fear the US will lose Britain, and possibly even NATO in all but name. In which case, Britain would become like any other European – talking about defence, investing little in it, and able to do little for it. PESCO?
As for my country being humiliated, that is certainly how I feel right now. Sadly, as our Irish friends revealed this week, such humiliation is in no small part due to the incompetence of the people who lead it, and the profound divisions between them over Brexit.
Europe must see the Big Picture of Brexit and sort it out quickly, before it becomes any more toxic.