Britain cannot continue to behave as if Europe has ceased to exist after Brexit
In the earthquake caused by this war, a great reshaping in the world, relations between Britain and the EU must again become our greatest argument at hand.
Hardly anyone in mainstream British politics wants to talk about it. For Brexiteers, any other issue can, in theory, be reopened, from tax promises to Scottish independence; but Brexit is a sacrosanct and hallowed victory that must forever remain intact. Pro-European politicians largely agree, although out of fear of English nationalism rather than pride.
After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, this cannot go on. If we really look at the world as it is – if we really are in a decidedly pragmatic frame of mind as Europe takes on Vladimir Putin – then the relationship between the UK and the political alliance on the continent will not can no longer be treated as the great unmentionable.
The reasons are obvious. The Chinese autocracy acts, unsurprisingly, as if it were closer to Russian autocracy than to democracies; China is not a friend. Although NATO remains the rock on which Western security rests, Donald Trump is still prowling the United States. America may not be a secure ally in the medium term. There are the remnants of the Commonwealth in the distance. If not, where does Britain look for reliable friendships in the dangerous world of the 2020s? The Indian subcontinent? But the Foreign Ministry is already debating whether to punish Pakistan for leaning toward Russia in refusing its aid.
We can see a world splitting again into two blocs – Russia-China and the Democratic Rest. But even if the UK is a committed member of the rest, alliances and internal connections will be essential. Besides the Nordic countries, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Mediterranean democracies, where is Britain supposed to look?
The UK will not return as a full member of the EU. As long as what used to be called the Conservative and Unionist Party and which is now the Brexit Party controls the country, this cannot happen. Labor is silent, even as the Liberal Democrats, with whom the party may one day share power, are taking bold steps towards a new policy.
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But coming back and touring are two different things. A European turning point becomes perfectly possible. Beneath the unchanged and encrusted highlands of the Brexit debate, new streams of thought are beginning to circulate.
Let’s start with a minimalist position. Even among conservatives, there is a growing understanding that a new European defense posture is about to occur. On the back of much higher German defense spending, a possible EU army is described as the European branch of NATO. But where does that leave Britain? The Ministry of Defense doesn’t think about it, but other parts of Whitehall do.
On the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Foreign Office’s rhetoric has become noticeably more moderate. Liz Truss is proving to be, under the new pressures, a more pragmatic and flexible foreign minister than her critics had expected. It will get him in trouble, no doubt: On March 15, former Brexit negotiator David Frost demanded that the Tories promise to tear up the protocol or “the poison between us will remain”. It already sounds like tired, outdated pre-war language.
The incessant exchange of childish insults between Paris and London has all but ceased. Any sense that the EU was “the enemy” evaporated in the face of a real enemy. The question is to know where and how far does the new thinking on Europe go?
My colleague Paul Mason has also made the current pro-European argument, I think, wherever possible. He argues that in this new world, “proximity matters” and that the UK must be part of continental energy and defense solutions. Mason says that, far from being a declining and falling apart brand, as Brexit supporters expected, the Russian threat means it is re-emerging as a strategic power. Once he does, “the UK will become his satellite”.
Brexiters, of course, have a very different view. They tend to ignore the big geopolitical sweep and focus on recent British successes. The humiliation of Britain’s slow response to the refugee crisis aside, there have been signs that Britain still matters.
These early shipments of anti-tank weapons made Britain popular in Ukraine. Opinion polls in the middle of a war zone are unreliable, but still a poll in early March showed Boris Johnson second only to Volodymyr Zelensky in popularity there. Ukrainian soldiers firing Swedish-British weapons apparently shout “God save the Queen” as they strike. Zelensky and Johnson speak regularly, and we heard Zelensky’s expression of gratitude to Johnson in the Commons earlier this month.
In the G7 conversations, the UK was leading in advocating for Russia to be excluded from the Swift bank transfer scheme, a particularly painful economic sanction. Finally, the UK’s relatively low dependence on Russian gas has allowed it to be more aggressive on the energy issue than, say, the Netherlands or Germany.
In short, the British government has done better so far in the Ukraine crisis than its internal or external critics expected. Russian money penetrating the British establishment hasn’t bought the Kremlin much. But that has little or nothing to do with Brexit. A more hawkish British approach would have been perfectly possible inside the EU. And beyond the Brexit party, the rest of politics is looking to improve its relationship with European capitals. About time. UK politicians can no longer pretend the EU doesn’t exist, or if it does, it doesn’t matter.
For the past few years we have been living in a strange, disconnected political culture where, across the Channel, there is a hazy, colorless nothingness. The politicians behaved as if the opinions and actions of Brussels were totally irrelevant. They turn their backs to look elsewhere – the United States, China, India, whatever. (Well, it is now.) Europe? That is not here. It’s a myth, old bean; an unreliable rumor.
This nonsense is finally ending. Senior Labor officials disagree on whether Britain should, in the medium term, try to join a customs union, although hardly anyone in the leadership is heading for the single market now. A Starmer government would seek to establish much better relations with Paris and Berlin, and would opt for a deeper trade and cooperation agreement when it is renegotiated halfway through the next legislature.
A senior Labor official told me: “To win the essential number of seats in Scotland, we will have to at least promise a closer relationship with Europe. In England, the evidence confirming that the withdrawal was a catastrophic mistake is mounting day by day and starting to show up in the polls… politicians rarely win votes by running away from tough questions. Promising at least a closer relationship with Europe is the most expedient course of action, as well as a requirement of a principled party.
Participating in Europe is not a return to the EU. The above may sound minimalist, but it would be difficult for conservatives to attack as euro appeasement, and it would define a new direction of travel.
Either way, the Conservatives have their own problems with the EU. I write here about the reshaping of the political class. But the ongoing overhaul in the country matters, of course, much more. We don’t yet have reliable evidence on the extent to which the Ukraine crisis has shaken Britain’s belief in Brexit to go it alone, a brave surfer on the bloody torrent of history. But I can’t believe that these huge and intimidating events that we are going through have no effect. And there will come a day when “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit” will no longer be a sufficient slogan for anyone. In other words: aren’t we all Ukrainians now?
[See also: Putin believes he is defending Orthodox Christianity from the godless West]