Thu, Jan 07, 2016 - Page 9 News List

‘Brexit’ would be as wounding to Europe as it would be to Britain

To leave the EU would seriously weaken Britain, and Europe needs its ingrained liberal global outlook

By Ulrich Speck  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

The debate about a British exit from the EU — Brexit — has been dominated by economic considerations: whether EU membership helps or hurts the British economy.

Geostrategic aspects are at least as important; in the 20th century, the country twice had to fight costly wars to help restore order on the European continent.

Brexit would imply a number of wide-ranging geopolitical choices: to lose the ability to coshape developments in Europe; to go it alone on the international stage instead of using the EU to multiply British weight; and to put at risk the close relationship with the US.

Geography might not be destiny, but it is an important defining factor in shaping foreign policy. For Britain, two factors have been decisive: it is an island and it is only 33.15km away from continental Europe. In past centuries, Britain had two options — either focus on the geopolitics of the European continent or concentrate on being a global merchant empire.

The days of the empire are long gone. World War II exhausted Britain to such a degree that it was unable to maintain its domination of faraway countries. The US had become the decisive global power and the anti-imperialist movement had undermined Britain’s empire.

The new role Britain found was to be the junior partner of the US. Britain chose to invest in the “special relationship” with the US rather than the project of European integration, where it saw its role as sponsor and not member.

However, over time, the increasing success of the French and German-led European integration caused Britain to realize that it would be better to be in than out, for economic and geopolitical reasons. Britain joined in 1973 and became, despite recurrent waves of discomfort, a pillar of European integration.

In the mid-1980s, then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher played a key role in setting up the single market, a space in which people, money, goods and services can move with relative ease. The second major British contribution to the EU has been its engagement for EU enlargement after the Cold War.

Today, Britain is reviewing its grand strategy again. Its uneasiness with the EU has led it to flirt with leaving the union. However, to do so would be a great mistake.

Unlike in previous centuries, Britain has no other good options. It cannot go it alone globally, as the UK is too weak to compete with the US or China and can be pushed around by both.

In addition, Brexit might weaken the system of EU governance and make continental Europe less stable. Britain’s global and European aspirations converge today: both are best pursued by redoubling British engagement in the EU.

Britain’s global role depends on its EU membership. For the US, the UK is an important partner in NATO, but the center of European foreign policymaking today is the monthly EU foreign ministers’ meetings in Brussels, plus the EU summits of heads of government.

A US that is reconsidering its global engagement supports a stronger EU foreign policy, as it needs a strong European partner.

The Brexit debate has weakened London’s weight in Europe and this affects the British relationship with Washington. Today, Paris is more important to Washington with regards to southern Europe, and Berlin with regards to eastern Europe and Russia. For a pragmatic, unsentimental US, Britain is relevant only to the degree that it can help to build coalitions inside the EU.

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