“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own


March 25, 2018

“Global Britain” Is Already on Its Own

by Mark Malloch-Brown

British voters’ decision to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the costs of departure are being felt first on the foreign-policy front. The international response to the recent nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, suggests that the costs will be high.

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LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally had a good crisis. Responding to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the placid market town of Salisbury, England, May projected strength – including to her fellow European leaders – by demanding that the Kremlin answer for the crime. As a former home secretary, security is clearly her strong suit, and she has now gone a long way toward repairing her tattered authority in Parliament.

Moreover, May also managed to reach an agreement with European Union negotiators on a 21-month transition period for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the bloc. And yet, despite May’s personal successes, this week might well be remembered as the moment when the foreign-policy costs of Brexit became clear.

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Until now, the British foreign-policy grandees and former ambassadors warning that Brexit will severely damage the UK’s standing in the world have been dismissed by much of the public as discredited elites and fear-mongers. Understandably, Brexit supporters have taken little notice of various straws in the wind heralding the direction their country will take. They are unmoved, for example, by the fact that, after losing a United Nations vote, their candidate pulled out of the race and the UK now has no judges seated at the International Court of Justice for the first time in 71 years.

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The Cranky Boris Johnson with The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Still, if that wasn’t enough to reveal Britain’s new loneliness, the use of a Soviet-era nerve agent on British soil certainly is. Though EU members have expressed their support for Britain and made assurances that Brexit will not disrupt solidarity or security, there are signs that this united front may, in fact, be just a front. The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election to a fourth term – a move that rankled the UK. Greece and others also expressed some skepticism about the relationship with the UK as they arrived in Brussels for the European Council summit.

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Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump also congratulated Putin. While he also condemned Russia for the Salisbury incident – a rare departure from the Putin-loving corner he has painted himself into – support for Britain on this occasion seems to have been motivated more by his political calculus than a deep sense of solidarity. After several days of deafening silence, Trump was under growing pressure to speak out. And on the whole, his unpredictability and transactional approach to alliances has already called into question Britain’s most important relationship outside Europe.

Beneath the surface, the international response to the Salisbury attack reveals alarming cracks in the UK’s position on the world stage. It is widely assumed that the UK’s weak response to similar incidents, not least the 2006 murder of the Russian defector and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, has convinced Putin that he can get away with such provocations. But Putin may also have anticipated the public outrage over the attack on the Skripals and calculated that EU member states with pro-Russian governments – namely, Hungary, Greece, and, soon, Italy – would veto any strong EU response. By this reasoning, Putin could drive an even larger wedge between Britain and Europe, thus advancing his longstanding goal of undermining European solidarity.

In any case, the UK’s isolation and vulnerability are now abundantly obvious. In its efforts to apply pressure on Europe, the Kremlin has identified Britain as a weak link. And those efforts go well beyond attempted murder on British territory. It seems increasingly likely that Russia also interfered in the Brexit referendum, as it did in the 2016 US election; and that Russian criminal elements have penetrated London’s financial and services sectors.

Britain is a beachhead in Russia’s strategy to undermine European security. Unfortunately, the territorial defense guarantee that comes with NATO membership does little good in a conflict conducted in the shadows through assassinations, cyber warfare, and criminal subterfuge. Nor does NATO membership help in responding to the Kremlin’s exploitation of European dependence on Russian energy, such as when it uses natural-gas supplies as a geopolitical weapon.

The decision by a slim majority of UK voters to leave the EU may have been motivated mostly by domestic issues such as political dysfunction and immigration, but the Skripal episode has made it clear that the costs of departure will be felt first on the foreign-policy front. The rest of Europe will sink or swim together in confronting Russian aggression. But the UK, having singled itself out, is a prime target for a dunking.

In recent years, Russian officials had already become increasingly derisive toward Britain’s presumptions about its international status and power. Like many observers around the world since the Brexit vote, the Kremlin does not look at the UK and see a country able to wield anything approaching global influence. Rather, it sees a country mired in nostalgia – easy pickings for destabilization.

In a sense, “Leave” voters were right that the EU is out of touch with the times, but not for the reasons they thought. One can debate whether the EU is a stale champion of the rules-based liberal international order. But what is now clear is that it is not ready for the emerging post-liberal order.

In the new order, strong states will throw their weight around with little care for the rules-based system that the EU has long epitomized. But at least the EU will have numbers on its side. Putin’s Russia will be just the start of post-Brexit Britain’s worries. The UK will also have to contend with China, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even its most important ally – the US.

Just as Britain negotiates its exit from the EU, the consensus-based multilateralism of the post-war era is being supplanted by muscular nationalism. In this new schoolyard, only those with committed friends will be able to stand up to the bullies. Others will have no other choice than to cower and hope for the best.

Brexit: Britain’s nervous breakdown, and Theresa May’s Waterloo


February 2, 2018

Opinion Brexit

Brexit:  Britain’s nervous breakdown, and Theresa May’s Waterloo

https://www.ft.com/content/3687f1b0-067d-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5

The country is upending the policies that have set its national course for 50 years

by Philip Stephens@www.ft.com

Familiarity is a distorting prism. All too easily the extraordinary becomes the unremarkable, the aberrant the commonplace. This is what has happened in Britain following the referendum  decision to leave the EU. The attempt to wrench the nation out of its own continent has triggered a national nervous breakdown. Only the British cannot see it.

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Open plotting against an enfeebled Prime Minister, civil war in the cabinet, a ruling Conservative party riven by faction, a Labour opposition led by a life-long admirer of Fidel Castro, parliament imprisoned by the referendum result, paralysis at the heart of government — all have become the stuff of everyday politics. Britain was once a sturdy, stable democracy. Anger and acrimony are the new normal, as likely to elicit a weary shrug as incredulity.

Historians will scratch their heads in wonder. These are truly extraordinary times. Britain is upending the economic and foreign policies that have set its national course for half a century. Nothing in modern peacetime matches the upheaval. The impact on the nation’s prosperity, security and role in international affairs will be felt for a generation and beyond. Unwrapping decades of integration is a task of huge complexity.

And yet Theresa May, the Prime Minister, dare not set out her preferred course for a post-Brexit settlement lest she be toppled by her own Tory MPs. Instead she pleads with Germany’s Angela Merkel to tell her what Berlin might offer in terms of a future relationship. The humiliation is excruciating.

With each step back from the melee, the picture becomes all the more incredible. Most MPs in the House of Commons consider Brexit an act of folly. They will vote against their judgment because the referendum, with its narrow majority for leave, has been invested with an absurd, almost mystical status. Let no one dare question “the will of the people”. With the odd, honourable exception, Tory and Labour pro-Europeans seem inclined to let Britain sink rather than make common cause across party lines. A nation that calls itself the mother of parliaments has somehow mislaid the meaning of representative democracy.

Brexit is an act of protectionism promulgated by English nationalists who inexplicably style themselves free-marketeers. Every study produced in Whitehall suggests departure from the single market will leave Britain poorer and less able to promote its interests overseas. Throwing up barriers across the Channel will weaken its voice across the Atlantic.

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Michael Gove
“Baffled historians will search in vain to find a single official in the high echelons of Whitehall — from the cabinet stary down — who thinks Brexit is anything less than a catastrophe…[T]he vision amounted to no more than rhetorical flatulence on the part of Boris Johnson…The foreign secretary has no project or purpose in mind. He wants to be prime minister because, well, he wants to be prime minister. Parallels with US president Donald Trump are not far-fetched”.–Philip Stephens

 

Only this week Mrs May sought unsuccessfully to suppress an official analysis showing the alternatives to EU membership will reduce growth and cut living standards. Tory Brexiters are unmoved. The cabinet Brexiter Michael Gove sets the intellectual tone when he pours scorn on the insights of experts.

Baffled historians But what of “global Britain”, the bold Elizabethan future imagined by the Brexiters? Alas, the historians will discover, the vision amounted to no more than rhetorical flatulence on the part of Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary…Mr Johnson, whose calculated mendacity is matched only by inflated self-regard, is determined Mrs May should be ousted.

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Boris Johnson–What he wouldn’t to be British Prime Minister

Where all this leads, it is impossible to say. Mr Johnson, whose calculated mendacity is matched only by inflated self-regard, is determined Mrs May should be ousted. Personal ambition burns more brightly here than any convictions. The foreign secretary has no project or purpose in mind. He wants to be prime minister because, well, he wants to be prime minister. Parallels with US president Donald Trump are not far-fetched.

Mrs May could survive. But to what end? Without the confidence of her cabinet and deprived of a majority in the House of Commons by an ill-judged general election, Mrs May has neither the wit nor the authority to reach a sensible agreement with the EU27. Most MPs would back a “soft” Brexit, leaving Britain’s economy closely connected to Europe. Mrs May feels threatened by the English nationalists. Her strategy, if you could call it that, is to leave all the serious decisions until after Britain’s departure from the EU in March 2019.

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Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn is a 1970s hardline socialist who sees the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. Mr Corbyn may launch opportunistic strikes against the government but shows no enthusiasm for a close relationship with the EU27.

In other circumstances Her Majesty’s loyal opposition might offer a counterpoint of stability. Instead Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, a 1970s hardline socialist who sees the EU as a capitalist conspiracy. Mr Corbyn may launch opportunistic strikes against the government but shows no enthusiasm for a close relationship with the EU27.

As for the voters, some may have changed their minds. Polls suggest the 52:48 per cent tally in favour of Leave would be reversed in a second referendum. Maybe. But these numbers are well within the margin for error. Why anyway should people take a different view before they have seen the deal on offer from Britain’s erstwhile partners and, pace Mr Gove, have weighed the evidence as to the likely effect on living standards?

If there is a slim hope that Britain can emerge wounded rather than broken, it lies in the possibility that things will get still worse in the short term. Mendacity, chaos and division could end in complete paralysis — with parliament failing to agree on any form of Brexit. If Britain does remain part of the EU after all this, it will be because, in its present state, it is simply incapable of leaving.

philip.stephens@ft.com