Britain at Sea – Brexit

by Jun 22, 2018

Presentation by Lord Malloch-Brown at Blavatnik, University of Oxford

In a presentation by Lord Malloch-Brown last week in which he outlined how the UK can salvage its foreign policy, he expressed anger at Britain’s decision to leave the EU, highlighting two hypotheses which he asserted meant that that the country was facing a storm and had lost anchor. These were the turbulent environment that Europe and the US currently face and the challenges of the post-war liberal order that is facing a significant unprecedented challenge. British society he noted is rooted in continuity and had fought for centuries for a balance of power. Brexit supporters were deluded in trying to revive the country’s imperial global status, ignoring the fact that the county no longer has the economies of scale which the European Union (EU) offers. For too long British politicians cast the EU as the bogeyman, with some of the right wing media featuring distorted stories, fuelling anti EU sentiments. The reality he noted is that EU has been good for both parties, Britain and the EU. The EU is the UK’s principal trade partner, security arrangements have been enhanced and as well as the country’s global posture by belonging to a larger entity. Many EU partners appreciate the UK’s input in making its institutions more efficient and effective and less protectionist on trade issues to the benefit of all member states. EU leaders at the top level have been magnanimous in the negotiations, not to give ammunition to the right wing media although at a lower level, local politicians have been more pugnacious, citing the Mayor of Paris who wants his city to supplant the city of London in finance.

Overseas observers view the British government’s position with bewilderment and comment that the country is not relevant. While he felt that the country is in no danger of losing its Security Council seat in the UN at the moment, France will position itself as the European representative. Europe is defecting and the commonwealth is not taking up the space. The UK’s position is however not unique as in other parts of the EU national electorates are turning against the union.

On security, in the face of the Russian strategy of disruption of western democracies, Britain is viewed as the weakest link. In Europe, Hungary, Greece and Italy cannot be depended on to back the fight against the Russian aggression. Europe’s dependency on oil imports from Russia makes the continent vulnerable to that country. The Trump administration’s call for closer ties with Russia is likely to receive some support in Europe because of these conditions, particularly from countries noted above. Britain, with its mercantilist position, is isolated. On the global stage, some large countries are moving towards authoritarianism and country first positions and taking a cue from Trump towards bilateral relationships.

The British brand is still strong with regards to soft power. It is one of the few advanced countries to devote the.7% of its GDP to foreign aid that is recommended by the UN. The BBC and the country’s championship of human rights and the environment are a big plus which means while still a small country, it punches above its weight and this is magnified as part of the larger EU entity. In moving away from the EU, the UK will have to depend on institutions like the UN for world solutions where, as a small country it is vulnerable. He noted that foreign policy is effective when driven by values and Britain needs to join the EU to build global collaboration and conversation to democratise foreign policy, particularly as studies suggest that electorates around the world have lost trusts in governments. Europe needs to fashion its unique path as one of three blocs, namely the EU, China and the US. In post Brexit, there would be moves, led by the French to minimise the UK’s leverage within the EU. The UK needs to be part of the EU bloc EU, using its expertise to make the bloc more effective on the global stage.

The fight against Brexit must be multipronged, highlighting the economy security, shared values and bread and butter issues like healthcare. He noted that uncertainty is dangerous and there must be a clearly specified time limit for negotiations after which Parliament and the electorate should have a vote.

Comments and Analysis

In discussions by the audience it was noted that the former Prime Minister, David Cameron was partly responsible for Brexit by joining the hard right group in the European parliament which reduced his Conservative party’s ability to work with mainstream conservative groups in that body. The UK had failed to make use of clauses that would have allowed it to limit immigration. Europe, it was noted, does not have a single focus and would find it difficult to navigate its way on the global stage particularly with American dominance of technology, international banking and military power. This has been demonstrated in Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran agreement as EU companies have pulled out of that country despite support for the agreement by EU members and other signatories. Macron and Merkel it was noted were charting further EU integration, notably, among the 16 members sharing the Euro currency.

The most profound comment was made by a member of the audience who noted that there were very few young people in the audience made up primarily of middle aged and elderly academics and professional people. In the referendum the young voted overwhelmingly – 75% of voters aged 18-24 – to remain in the EU, however as a percentage of all voters in that age group only 36% voted against over 80% of voters aged 55 and over. A majority of the working class also voted to leave. This means that the views of the young, whose future was being decided and who backed staying in the EU were not reflected in this momentous decision. The working class, who felt more threatened in terms of jobs and housing from increased immigration and voted for Brexit, do not as a rule participants in formal debates but rather made their decisions informally, in discussions with family and friends. This indeed is the challenge that Lord Malloch-Brown and other remainers face if they are to press politicians to stay in the EU, negotiate for closer ties after Brexit, call for a new referendum and if that is granted to win that referendum.

The issue which was not discussed in detail was the tools needed to convince supporters of Brexit to change their position. The right wing media is very vocal in support of Brexit. However significant changes in the media landscape and people’s formulation of views, notably, the importance of social media, means that the fight for voters is more complex and so far remainers do not seem to have found solutions. The strongest influence on voters is often the views of friends and family, people they trust, often these days through social media. Often such views can even be inimical to the interests of such voters as I pointed out in my paper on Trump’s America. Logic does not often take prominence, a fact that Russia has played on in elections in Europe and America. How to penetrate and sway the tribe is the major challenge.

There was only a brief mention of the post Brexit opportunities and challenges of the US and other non- EU partners and the Trump doctrine and how they could affect the debate. Malloch-Brown admittedly noted that it was unlikely that the commonwealth would take up the slack that Brexit will unleash. The UK would need to work hard in strengthening links with other (non-commonwealth) countries. A key factor is the bilateral US/UK trade negotiations that are already taking place even though this is at an informal level. Since the UK/EU trade is much larger than UK/America trade, the outcome, if the these negotiations result in the US supplanting the EU as a market and source of goods and services, if indeed that is feasible, would have very significant effect on Britain’s jobs, economy etc., way beyond the “chlorinated chicken” issue that Lord Malloch-Brown noted. Lord Malloch-Brown’s statement that the EU has been magnanimous in the negotiations is not correct. As I noted in a previous paper, the EU has to insist on punitive actions to make Britain realise that there is a cost to Brexit, if anything as a deterrent to other states within the Union. Consequently, the EU has also indicated that Brexit will usher in new EU/UK relationships and collaboration including research, space, security, supply chains and other areas.

The remain camp need to push harder on prominent Brexiteers who are often deluded as regards the huge opportunities they paint, notably, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, who not only disdains links with the EU, has lauded the relationship with Trump’s America and recently reportedly stated that Trump was a much better negotiator than the Prime Minister. As Robert Kagan stated in his article in the Brookings Institute titled, Trump’s America does not care, ”Those that depend on the United States, meanwhile, will be treated with disdain, pushed around and used as pawns.” This point was echoed by Thomas Wright, Director of the Center of the United States and Europe who noted in his article titled, Trump is choosing Eastern Europe, that the Trump administration in its current bilateral trade negotiations with Britain is insisting that Britain break away from the EU and adopt US regulatory framework thereby making it difficult for the UK to come to an agreement with the EU, is therefore “treating Britain as an easy mark, not as a vital strategic ally”. Rather than ensuring a proud Britain anchored in a strong EU, Mr Johnson it would appear prefers the UK to become Trump’s poodle. Malloch-Brown and his remain group need to highlight these issues and hopefully engender British pride and the antipathy towards Trump by British voters to further their cause. This will probably be as effective if not be more than the dry technical arguments about the negative impacts of Brexit. They should highlight the dangers of siding with a mercurial and nationalistic leader against the UK’s natural and major trading partner, the EU.

Furthermore, aligning closely with Trump rather than being closely linked with leading liberal democratic stalwarts within the EU, namely, France and Germany will tarnish the UK brand that Malloch-Brown alluded to, while diminishing the UK’s clout. Trump has demonstrated an inclination to dictators and “strong leaders”. Even in Europe, in a speech on the Trump’s Europe strategy by Wess Michell, the US Assistant Secretary of State, he indicated that the US was pivoting away from Western Europe towards central and Eastern Europe which have been trending away from liberal democratic values. A post Brexit Britain would therefore be aligned to a grouping of undemocratic states, become the poodle of Trump’s America, lose the major role that it shares with Germany and France in the most powerful economic entity in the world, the EU and, be an outlier minor player in world forums, even with its UN Security Council seat.

Britain is at sea, buffeted by strong winds, in the form a hostile Russia, a domineering and nationalistic America and an assertive EU. On deck, the crew, while not quite in an open state of mutiny are in a rebellious mood, notably, Scottish demands for a more prominent role at the table, the Northern Ireland/Irish border quagmire, the House of Lords push for Parliament to have a strong input in negotiations, Labour and Lib/Dem assertiveness and Conservative party fights between moderates and hard-liners. Among voters while there is an element of buyer remorse among people who voted to leave the EU, no one knows how deep this is or if voters will be asked again for their verdict.

J Boima Rogers is the Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford,