Geopolitics of the EU n.4
In a matter of days the Brexit saga will finally come to an end. It’s been more than four years since the British people voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, a fierce divorce which cost the job to two prime ministers and triggered elections every two years instead of the usual five. As of now the two parties are still struggling to find a deal which satisfies both of them, fishery seems to be the sticking point in the negotiations. While it’s still unclear whether a deal will actually come into force and what will it look like, Brexit has already had its consequences and the geopolitical processes it triggered, both in Europe and the UK, will have their impact regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.
TO THE BRITONS BREXIT IS JUST LIKE TRAFALGAR
“Lord Nelson atop Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London” by RedCoat is licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0
While the geographical position of Great Britain within the European continent is indisputable, it’s a common mistake to define the British people as European, their history and sense of belonging say otherwise. The late Kingdom of England strongly asserted its uniqueness with respect to continental Europe when Henry VIII created the Church of England to break away from Papal authority, refusing at the same time to join the European Protestants. Elizabeth I then defended England’s position by defeating the Spanish armada and paving the way for English supremacy at sea and the creation of the Empire. The Union with Scotland and the overseas conquests turned the Kingdom of England into the British Empire, to much discontent of the Island’s other inhabitants. From this point on, Britain paid little attention to continental Europe, the Strait of Dover kept the British people safe from the once chaotic Europe. While the resistance against France in the Napoleonic Wars and against Germany in both World Wars strengthened Britain’s feeling of distinctiveness and superiority.
Having lost its Empire after World War II, the UK lasted little time on his own and finally joined the EEC in 1973. But the Britons remained nostalgic of their past and jealous of their sovereignty, the UK has always been by far the most Eurosceptic Member State, with more opt-outs options than any of its peers and a constant aversion to European integration. Once Britain realized that the European project was much more than a simple custom union, it was only a matter of time before it decided to leave.
Brexit represents a major event in the history of the United Kingdom, it has divided the country in many ways. Most importantly, the different nations represented in Westminster are seriously reconsidering their position within the United Kingdom. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, as opposed to England and Wales, this difference of opinion has boosted the desire for independence in the devolved nations. Since the Brexit referendum Scotland has been repeatedly asking for a second independence referendum, while in Northern Ireland the separatists have gained momentum in the 2017 elections achieving an historic result. These developments give London strong incentives to mitigate the impact of Brexit as much as possible while still eliminating Brussels’ influence over its internal affairs.
There is a myth which reassures the Britons about a future without the EU, it’s the myth of a “Global Britain”, the idea of a United Kingdom free to form new beneficial connections with the world without the interference of Brussels. But the UK has forgotten that the Empire was lost a long time ago and, without the backing of the European Union, its position on the international arena is greatly weakened. Britain’s overconfidence led it to believe the fairy tale of the “Special Relationship” with the US, while Washington has always used London to keep Europe under control and balance off any eventual push for further European integration, for the Britons being out of the Union means to be less useful for the Americans. So far the US have done little to help Britain, they made clear to London that their Irish ancestry matters more than their English origins, moreover, right now Washington is focused mainly on countering Beijing’s growing influence, which has taken advantage of the UK’s weak position and in that regard the US exerted strong pressure. Some progress has been made for trade deals with partners like Japan, South Korea, Canada, Israel and Norway but of limited importance. Only in the defense sector Britain didn’t lose any credibility thanks to its allegiance to NATO, the Five Eyes (an alliance between the intelligence departments of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and the continued cooperation with its European partners. Nevertheless, without the EU the United Kingdom is undoubtedly weaker and nostalgia for the Empire’ status will not be enough to get Britain back on his feet.
“I DIDN’T LOSE YOU, YOU LOST ME”
As with any other matter, the European nations have different priorities and strategies in mind to address the Brexit issue. Luckily, they have been clever enough to let the European Commission handle most of the negotiations. Nonetheless, the Member States’ individual interests have indeed had an important impact on the whole process, which is gradually changing the Union internal equilibrium.
Needless to say, Brussels has done a wonderful job in handling the Brexit negotiations, it perfectly exploited the weaknesses of the counterparty without antagonizing it, the Commission defended strenuously the Union’s economic interests and carefully managed the gigantic issue of the Irish border. A small country like the Republic of Ireland could well be satisfied with the inputs it gave to the negotiations and of how the EU succeeded in protecting its interests. Brussels never gave in to London on the matter of Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is sacred and any border on the Irish island is a heresy. Brussels acted to protect its borders and shielded Dublin from British influence keeping it tight inside the Union, meanwhile the Republic of Ireland is slowly preparing the ground for Ulster to come back home.
Brexit is inevitably shaping the future of the European Union and when it comes to that, France and Germany are the two main characters who disagree on almost everything. Paris saluted the departure of London like the end of a toxic marriage, the Elysée has made clear more than once how impatient it was to see Britain leave the Union for good and it never hid its resentment towards the Britons. With the UK finally gone, France hopes to move on with further French-driven European integration which may well increase Paris’ power and influence over the Old Continent and improve its international position. Germany, on the other hand, was devastated to see one of its most important trading partners leave its sphere of economic influence. Berlin’s approach is much more practical than Paris’, the German political elite worries about business and economic wellbeing, it doesn’t like to risk, Germany prefers to have certainty and keep the status quo rather than making ambitious plans for the future. France’s grandeur frightens the Federal Republic, who had so far relied on London to balance Paris’ ambitions off, the Germans even sent the Britons a literal love letter asking them to reconsider their decision. And so while France can’t wait to move on, Germany is still deeply in love with Britain.
Although the German reaction shows regret, no one is grieving more than the Frugals (Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden) for the loss of the United Kingdom as a Member State. The very group itself formed on occasion of the July European Council to shield the economic resources of the most diligent countries from the bad spending habits of the P.I.G.S. (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), a role often played by Britain. This replacement of the UK with the Frugals infuriated president Macron who took his disappointment out on the Dutch and Austrian prime ministers. Different actors, same old script.
The Union still hasn’t fully metabolized the consequences of Brexit, yet it seems like the Member States are slowly deciding which parts they want to play in the future. The current picture is not very different from the one ante-Brexit but there is still much room for improvement. After all Britain has never been truly European, luckily the same cannot be said about the rest of the Union.