Britain & the EU benefit from a strong security relationship, whatever happens with Brexit
Whatever happens in the coming months and years, Britain and the European Union would benefit from retaining a close working relationship on international security
By Lord Mandelson
Peter Mandelson is Chairman of Global Counsel. He was a UK Cabinet minister between 1997 and 2010, and has held the positions of European Commissioner for Trade and First Secretary of State.
Following the referendum result in June 2016, Britain will not be the same again. It will take our political system and both main parties decades to come to terms with the shock of Brexit and its consequences. What is true for our politics and economy applies equally to our international security. Once the UK is outside the EU, there is no reason for Europe automatically to oppose or ignore British views, but nor will there be an obligation to accommodate them. The key difference that should make it easier to work together in foreign rather than economic policy is that the latter is largely rules-based and deeply institutional, whereas the former is inter-governmental and more flexible, and likely to remain so.
International security should therefore be the area where Brexit matters least. But will it?
At the moment, Britain’s international influence and security cooperation are greatly enhanced by the EU. The question is whether there is the potential for retaining a closer bond in this sphere. Both sides would certainly benefit from it.
I have experienced how the EU and the UK gain from each other and how well this relationship has been transacted day-to-day, both as a UK Cabinet minister and an EU Commissioner. The public perception is different.
Britain took ages to join Europe’s construction (my pro-European grandfather, Herbert Morrison, as acting prime minister in the post-war Labour government, rejected initial membership of the new European Coal and Steel Community because he thought the Durham miners would not wear it).
Once in the European Economic Community, we then spent four decades finding ways to opt out of its ever-deepening integration (ironic, given that now we are heading out we want to devise ways to opt in again where we will benefit).
In reality, there has never been as big a gap between Britain’s more laissez-faire views and the continent’s dirigiste preferences as imagined.
Despite this chequered history, our European partners have grown to value us. Our economic size has contributed to Europe’s weight in international trade and the global economy.
Britain has been a driving force in opening up Europe’s internal markets for goods, services, capital and labour, and in pushing for market-based reforms. In reality, there has never been as big a gap between Britain’s more laissez-faire views and the continent’s dirigiste preferences as imagined.
By the same token, the UK has been a significant force in some of the most important steps to fight crime and terrorism. Without the UK, unless links are strenuously maintained, the ability of other member states to tackle cross-border organised crime and international terrorism will be reduced. This will also have knock-on effects on the UK.
Similarly, the EU has benefitted from UK diplomatic and military capabilities, just as the EU has acted as a foreign policy multiplier and tool for Britain. We have helped each other project our values and protect our interests globally.
The former Conservative foreign secretary, William Hague, has said that, post-Brexit, Britain will have less influence in crafting the EU’s international approach, and as a result less influence in the world. It is already hard to call to mind a major foreign policy matter on which the UK has had decisive influence since the 2016 referendum.
An unpredictable future
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has called for foreign and security policy to be taken forward by a newly formed EU Council. It is not hard to understand why. Rapid shifts of political and economic power are happening across the world, China’s economic and military capacity is growing, and the geopolitical scene is more unpredictable. The post-war liberal international system, if not crumbling, is certainly on the back foot.
As the world moves towards more ‘great power’ deal-making, the EU and UK need each other for scale and muscle to influence events. This is why on security the EU and the UK need to raise their eyes beyond the current Brexit stasis. The UK needs to reassure its allies that it is not checking out of its international responsibilities and the EU should swallow its pride and acknowledge that it needs Britain’s military heft and international networks.
In my experience, it is across Europe’s more ad hoc structures — consisting of key national officials, where information is efficiently shared and consensus built to pave the way for political decisions — that the UK’s absence will be most keenly felt by everyone.
This is where the more risky, resource-intensive policy decisions are made about security issues and where the Europeans get most purchase on the direction of US policy. It is desirable to maintain these inter-governmental caucuses, such as the EU three (France, Germany and the UK) and the ‘quad’ (the EU three plus the US).
The underlying reality is that — just at the moment the US president thinks he is leading the country in a more unilateralist approach — America is actually becoming more reliant on its alliances to maintain its longer-term edge. Historically, the US has looked to technology to offset its multiple potential adversaries. Looking forward, it is friends who will provide balance and coalitions to keep China, for example, in check.
For Europe to hold together and influence global issues with the US, it cannot afford to allow Brexit to make its internal limitations worse. Take, for example, the use of sanctions as an international weapon. Europe has some way to go before it develops the unity of action and intelligence infrastructure needed to become a serious sanctions ‘player’. The UK provides real grit in this particular oyster.
Along with a shared role with France in providing serious high-value defence equipment, the UK is the European superpower on intelligence. High-tech munitions currently rely on guidance systems linked to the American GPS, and in future will rely on the European Galileo global navigation system. No other European country rivals the UK as France’s industrial partner in providing this sophisticated equipment. Yet, following Brexit, Britain is to be excluded from Galileo. It is self-defeating.
The UK cannot be expected to be part of high-tech European defence manufacturing unless it is part of the crucial guidance system. Leaving the EU involves such an intensely complex set of issues and decisions that perhaps Brexit will eventually defeat Brexit. In the meantime, there is a duty not to destroy completely what has been such a good and useful relationship, at so many levels.
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 1 2019