The Strategic Consequences of the Brexit Vote
Photo: Alper Çu
In the aftermath of the vote by the British people on June 23 to leave the European Union, foreign policy analysts have begun to think about how the damage can be limited. At a conference organized by the Centre for European Reform earlier this week, there was much discussion about whether there could be some form of either informal or even institutionalized foreign policy co-operation between the EU and the U.K. if and when it leaves. After all, in many areas, they share interests and are used to cooperating. Some pro-European British are already talking about an “EU+1” format in which the U.K. could continue to play a role in European foreign policy. The idea – inspired by the “P5+1,” the format in which Germany joined the six permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to deal with the Iranian nuclear program – is that the U.K. might play a role in “policy shaping” if not actual “policy making.” Such a mechanism would be a good idea, though it will depend on good will on both sides, which may be in short supply if negotiations over the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU become difficult.
Even if this kind of cooperation can be made to work, the consequences of the Brexit vote are likely to undermine both British and European foreign policy. However the British crisis is resolved, it is likely to take up most of the Foreign Office's limited resources for the foreseeable future. Initially, it will have to negotiate its withdrawal from the EU and working out a new trade relationship with the EU. At the same time, it will have to negotiate a series of trade deals with other countries around the world. If the U.K. does actually leave the EU, the most important part of its foreign policy will be its policy toward Europe. Meanwhile the EU is itself likely to be embroiled in arguments about what kind of “reform” is now needed to stop the Eurosceptic surge and disintegration.
The British vote may also exacerbate the economic squeeze on European foreign policy, which has been underway for a few years. Since the euro crisis began in 2010, EU member states have increasingly focused on economic priorities in their foreign policy. European diplomacy is now largely commercial – that is, focused on exports and investment. This focus on economic objectives, at the expense of contributing to security and promoting values such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, is likely to become even narrower after the British vote. The U.K. will obviously be – and is already – under extreme economic pressure. In fact, because of the fall of the pound, defense spending plans are already in question. The EU, meanwhile, will be under even greater pressure to produce growth to stop the Eurosceptic surge. As a result, both the EU and the U.K. may become not only be more introspective, but also more focused on the pursuit of economic objectives.
Many Europeans like to think of the EU as a “normative power.” This term is based largely on the model of enlargement, through which the EU sought to transform applicant countries in central and south-eastern Europe and in the process spread its norms. But since the euro crisis, and especially since the refugee crisis, it has become more realist even in its neighborhood and has all but abandoned a values-based approach in its relations with great powers. Meanwhile, in part because of its historical role and in part in order to justify its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the U.K. has traditionally sought to contribute to global security and promote global norms. But in recent years, it has increasingly prioritized economic objectives, most notably with China. In both cases, the economic pressure that is likely to follow the British vote is likely to strengthen this trend.
This is particularly problematic for the United States, which looks to the EU as a partner in solving global problems. In a policy brief published earlier this year, I argued that EU member states were becoming more dependent on non-Western powers for economic growth. This could create difficult dilemmas for EU member states and undermine Western unity in relations with powers such as China. The British vote to leave the EU is likely to worsen this situation. The sad thing is that before the vote there were some promising signs from an American perspective. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, for example, French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian proposed EU patrols of the South China Sea – an interesting attempt to make a contribution to Asian security and promote the international rule of law. It is hard to see the initiative going anywhere now.
All is not hopeless, though. There is a possible alternative to this bleak scenario. Precisely in order to counter the perception that they are now geopolitically irrelevant, either the EU or the U.K. – or both – might actually step up their foreign policy. For example, the EU has just published a new global strategy and could move head in security and defense cooperation – not least because it is so difficult to move ahead in other areas such as economic or refugee policy. Similarly, the new British government might want to send a signal, especially to the United States, that it is still “in the game,” as a British diplomat put it to me, and therefore pursue a more active and perhaps even higher-minded foreign policy than before. But this will require visionary politicians – of which there do not seem to be many in Europe right now.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.