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.
Illustration: Mountain people
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.
Going it alone without the US and European partners puts the UK in a weak spot, too weak to shape relationships with great powers. Instead of being a rule maker, Britain would become a rule taker. Increasing its weight on the global scale is one of the strategic opportunities EU membership provides for Britain. The other is the ability to coshape the system of governance that is dominating Europe.
This system of governance is currently in the middle of another great transformation. The EU is neither on the way to destroying the nation state nor to become a federal state, similar to the US. Nor is it disintegrating, as the doomsayers love to repeat.
What is happening is that the EU is changing from an integrated market to a political entity.
While the old EU was dominated by questions of market regulation and fights over budgets, the new EU deals with highly political issues: borders, asylum law, foreign policy and economic policies.
The euro crisis, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis have tested a number of established EU policies — from which the UK and some others have partly opted out. The eurozone, the Schengen area and a joint foreign and security policy were set in place years ago, but only now are countries being forced to find joint answers to joint challenges.
The result is not more central control; it is not increasing power for the institutions in Brussels. Instead, it has resulted in more cooperation and coordination among the key EU capitals, with Berlin and Paris in the lead. The issues that the EU is dealing with are, in the view of the capitals, just too important to leave them in the hands of the civil servants in Brussels.
Voters are deeply engaged in debates about the euro, Ukraine and refugees; governments can no longer make deals behind the backs of the public. The stakes are high.
From the outside, the struggle over policy often looks ugly. The solutions are far from perfect and they are always a work in progress. There is anger and there is open disagreement among capitals and publics. However, what matters is something that is often overlooked — the success in resolving matters of substance. The eurozone is better equipped to deal with crises, even if economists say that the system cannot work.
The EU has demonstrated unity when challenged by the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine and by that on the fundamental rules of the European peace order. On refugees, strong disagreements remain, but new concepts for joint border control and better coordination of asylum laws are under way.
Equally overlooked is what could be called the sociopolitical fabric of European integration. Every day, governments and administrative bodies communicate on many levels, sharing views and planning with each other — on issues that were formerly internal affairs. All of this amounts to huge machinery that not only leads to the smooth functioning of joint policies, but is also building what is most precious in international affairs — mutual trust.
While the EU might not have built the new paradigm of international order for the 21st century, which some hoped for, it has built an order that is successfully limiting power by a rules-based order. At a time when China and Russia seek to reformulate the global rule book by declaring neighboring territory their sphere of control, the EU is a space in which smaller countries enjoy rights; small Cyprus can block defense cooperation between the EU and NATO.
Smaller countries and larger countries are in a constant process of bargaining. Such achievements do not make headlines. However, against the backdrop of centuries of “struggle for mastery” in Europe, they remain remarkable. The German-French conflict, the biggest geopolitical challenge in Europe between 1866 and 1945, has been solved through European integration. Democracy in southern Europe — Spain, Portugal and Greece — and in central and eastern Europe has been consolidated through European integration. War among EU members is unthinkable.
For EU countries, membership in the EU remains the best bet to address the challenges of globalization — only Britain seriously considers leaving. The EU provides economic benefits, underpins political stability and keeps countries open and people open-minded.
In the increasing struggle between populists, who pretend countries can keep economic benefits from globalization while closing borders, and cosmopolitans who support globalization as a broader social and cultural concept, the EU clearly is on the side of the latter. The UK has a strategic choice to make between isolation and integration, between regaining a position inside the EU from which it can coshape geopolitics — or becoming an object of the geopolitics of others.
Brexit would not only be bad for Britain, it would be bad for Europe. Europe needs the liberal, global outlook that is so deeply ingrained in the British political culture. At a time when the market economy is increasingly threatened by protectionism and state capitalism, when the post-World War II liberal order is under stress, there is need for a strong Britain in a strong Europe.
With a dedicated, pro-European Britain, the EU could gain strength internally through further liberalization of the single market and externally through a joint foreign policy that would make the EU a true pillar of liberal order in a more chaotic and dangerous world.
Ulrich Speck is senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington.
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