Roderick Crawford: We have interests in the rest of Europe, but must be free to run our own foreign policy

6 Jul

Roderick Crawford works on conflict resolution in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq, and on Brexit-related matters. He is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief.

One could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu as we enter the second round of accelerated talks, this time in London. The high hopes of breakthrough at the start of last week’s talks were dashed as they broke up on Thursday last. The same sticking points remain: the legal structure of the agreement, level playing field commitments, including state aid, and of course fisheries. Specific details have not been released, so it is hard to comment on why the progress on getting agreement on underlying principles has failed to materialise.

Though working through the underlying principles of the agreement should help identify where the barriers to agreement lie, a look at the overarching principles of the negotiating positions of the two parties may throw better light on the lack of progress.

Last month, Der Spiegel ran an interview with the Anglophile former German Ambassador in London, Peter Wittig; he provided a revealing glimpse into the EU’s perspective on the negotiations. Asked whether, in effect, the EU should accept a hard Brexit and let the UK go, he says, no:

‘We should continue to endeavour to tie Britain as closely as possible to the European Union. Europe can only survive in the competition between the USA and China if it is strong and united. I always thought it was good that the Federal Government was the voice of pragmatic reason in all these difficult negotiation phases. I advise everyone not to think about the short-term effect, but to keep a strategic eye on where Europe should be in five, ten or 15 years.’

The quote is interesting because it is part of an intra-German conversation from a friend of the UK expressing pragmatic views on the big picture in which Brexit sits. While the UK has been caught up in its own arguments and political storms – and of course running ourselves down – we have lost sight of the impact of Brexit on the EU: it has been considerable.

The EU has lost its only global city, its only global finance centre, its most dynamic services economy, 12 per cent of its consumers – more when weighted for income – and its only universities ranked in the world’s top ten. It has lost a major pillar of good governance (the UK was a consistent upholder of the EU’s rules-based system) and a source of sound counsel.

As the EU looks to develop its common foreign policy and defence co-operation, it does so now from a far weaker base. The UK was one of two EU permanent members of the UN Security Council, one of two nuclear powers.

It had the only blue-water navy capable of working with the US; China has just achieved a two aircraft carrier capability – the UK will soon be there, too. It has a battle-tested professional army and air force. The UK alone had the capability of power projection across the world – albeit with limitations – and the will to do so. The Foreign Office, despite its shortcomings, is still world class and the UK’s influence is, arguably, stronger across the world than any single EU member state.

The EU is diminished, while the fault lines on which it sits become more unstable. To its east, Russia is reviving in confidence as its actions in Ukraine, Syria, and its challenges to the West demonstrate. Turkey has become a regional player, outside of the NATO fold, and looks to a future untied to the EU. The Middle East and North Africa are unstable, and a source of potential and probable mass migration to the EU driven by demographics, economic and political failures and climate change.

The UK looks out across the North Sea to Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, and across the Channel to Belgium and France; to our west lie the USA and Canada. It is an envious position to be in, though not one deserving of complacency: we still want a secure and stable EU. We are committed to the peace and security of Europe through NATO; in these respects, our interests and obligation in NATO, we are tied in.

One of the problems in the current negotiations is that the EU has re-written history to build up its own role in keeping the peace of the last half century. One of its foundational myths is that it has been the EU that has kept the peace in Europe. It even claims responsibility for the Belfast Agreement.

But its claims to success are absent of evidence. It is the transatlantic partnership that has kept the peace in Europe; it was the Northern Irish, London and Dublin – with US support – who brought about the Belfast Agreement. The EU forgets its role in the break up of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent wars and civil wars ended only with US engagement. Its diplomatic bungle over Kosovo, when it resurrected the July 1914 ultimatum to Serbia, ended likewise – and at great cost in civilian lives. The EU has not kept the peace in Europe.

The EU’s ambitious partnership proposal is overly ambitious, based as it is on inflated ideas of its own story and present capability; the ideas of uniquely shared values and interests ignore that they are shared with the English-speaking world and beyond. When the myth is removed, and the reality of the EU’s position is seen — its risk levels, its lack of investment in NATO and its own level of defence preparedness, and its poor relations with its neighbours — it is hardly an attractive partner; more of a liability.

The EU, quite understandably, wants the UK as closely tied in as possible to its defence and foreign policy (and economy). The UK, quite understandably, does not. Present commitments through NATO provide sufficient security to the EU’s members and help balance much, though not all, of their security concerns. The UK will do more, through co-operation bilaterally with members and freely alongside the EU too.

The EU and UK can co-operate to secure shared interests, but ultimately, though the UK wants a stable and secure EU and stability and security for its member states, there are differences in interests. The UK must be free to run its own foreign policy, champion alliances that may take precedence over that with the EU and policies that the EU will oppose — even the freedom to support member state interests against those of the EU institutions. It cannot be tied-in to a punitive governance structure to prevent it exercising such choices.

The overarching principles of the EU and the UK as regards governance of the future relationship are in conflict — we can’t be tied-in and free simultaneously; papering over the differences would breed confusion and likely lead to fresh upsets in the future. The UK cannot afford to accept a single overarching governance structure or claims upon it in the field of the EU’s common foreign policy and defence.