International relations usually get miniscule coverage in general elections and this one is no different. Yet, arguably Brexit will have enormous potential consequences further down the line. If trade negotiations do not go well, and Britain is hit badly by withdrawal, it could join with those countries who do not support the EU or even NATO, shocking for many though that might be to contemplate now. John Gloster-Smith discusses.

Many observers of the UK’s Brexit debate and its attempts to extricate itself from the EU have repeatedly commented on how inward looking the whole thing has been. The senior European negotiators have said that Britain seems to be negotiating with itself rather than the EU. This inward-looking character has continued in the current general election, with almost no attention being given to Britain’s relations with its neighbours. One might say that there’s nothing new in this. Britain has had a historic tendency to pretend that the continent of which it is a part does not exist. There has a failure to address what the future relationship with its neighbours will be, beyond Johnson’s facile and vastly over-simplistic electoral slogan, “Get Brexit Done”. In maintaining this delusion of simplicity, no attention is being given to the threat that Brexit poses to Britain’s peace and security going forward. However, this failure to take sufficiently seriously the threat posed is arguably one not unique to Britain alone.

NATO and the EU are at risk

This has been a time of anniversaries, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the formation of NATO in 1949. Both are reminders of a different age, but perhaps that awareness was partly missing from what occurred this week. The problem that Europe faces was highlighted with the NATO meeting in the UK this month, which was notable yet again for Trump’s innate capacity to create conflict wherever he goes. While many will remember how other leaders laughed at him behind his back, which is bad news for a pathological narcissist, what has not been addressed is the pattern of US disengagement from NATO paralleled with the pro-Russian tendencies of the US President. It is no secret that Putin and Trump share a dislike of the EU, and while that organisation is separate to NATO, both leaders for different reasons share a suspicion of both bodies.

Yet both the EU and NATO were created after World War II as bulwarks against threats to peace in Europe. The end of the Cold War has in turn led to a question mark over the continuing relevance of the latter as an anti-Russian alliance. Many states in Europe however, faced with a resurgent Russia have looked to EU and NATO memberships as twin supports. However, the arrival of both Brexit in the UK and national populism in a number of European states could hasten the unpicking of this complex security and stability structure.

It is as though for many there is a deadly amnesia as regards what lies beneath the surface of a seemingly prosperous and peaceful Europe. Brexit in particular is an existential threat to the EU, since it could have led to other populist demands from other states. Yet so far Brexit has been met with an impressive unity. All the other states have maintained a strong solidarity in the negotiations, and in the short term this could continue. However, once the pressure is off, there are other things boiling beneath the surface.

It’s easy to forget, or even not to be aware of, Europe’s history of war. Between 1500 and 1945 70% of the time has been taken up with major wars. Europe is a relatively small area but a patchwork quilt of nations, ethnicities and languages. Many wars have been fought over territory, economic interests, religion and rivalry for power and influence. War has been the single greatest cause of death through much of this time. In recent times, these complexities have been causes of war. The long post-war peace has been the exception.

Disruptive national populist forces

There has clearly been a rise of right-wing nationalism in many EU countries, and not just in the UK. Many fear that in time Brexit could embolden populist nationalism elsewhere. There are a number of potential conflict points in Europe, including the Baltic states, the former Yugoslav region and the Balkans in general, separatism in several countries, and revisionism and irredentism in countries like Russia and Hungary. There is a continuing war being fought in the Ukraine. At Europe’s boundary, there is incipient war between a NATO member, Turkey, and its neighbours in which ethnicity and sectarianism play a part. Britain has its own issues with the potential for conflict over independence desired by many people in its Celtic nations. One symptom of an unravelling has been the issuing of passports by countries in Eastern Europe to people of the same ethnicity in neighbouring countries. One country that most wants to profit from these divisions on its borders is Russia, who has been one such passport issuer in the Baltic states and Ukraine. Putin has made no secret of his desire to recreate the old Soviet Union hegemonic “sphere of influence” over its neighbours in some form.

There is a risk that national populist movements and disagreements between states could feed off one another, especially if the transnational bodies, NATO and the EU, are weakened. It was nationalist and ethnic conflicts that were exploited by Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930’s, while the League of Nations was proven to be a paper tiger. The EU itself is arguably an incomplete project, now a hybrid transnational entity that combines confederal and federal characteristics, a project seemingly unable to move forward in the current populist climate. Potentially what we have is a power vacuum which can be exploited by ruthless bigger neighbouring powers to serve their own interests, such as Russia, the US and China.

Britain as a post-Brexit disruptive force

Britain has historically tried at different times to deny that it has a role to play in Europe, but this has proved impossible to sustain. There is a British history of withdrawal from what it sometimes calls “European entanglements”, but this has been at a cost. For example since the fall of the Stuart dynasty in 1688, it has been drawn into major conflicts in Europe repeatedly. Each attempt at withdrawal has had to be reversed later. For much of this time it was also distracted by the interests and demands of its growing empire and then by resistance by the states it controlled, and thus struggled to combine a European with a global focus. Most recently after World War One it attempted to appease Germany and latterly Hitler and undermined attempts at European cooperation, which again in line with another feature of its historic approach to Europe it saw as a threat to its interests. Only once appeasement had plainly failed did Britain resume an involvement with Europe. Post-war it tried again to withdraw, and did not join the new EEC but soon realised its error. Now it is attempting a withdrawal once again, but now arguably at a potentially very dangerous juncture. It could itself also find survival on its own a very difficult and hazardous task and subject to domination by the US in a way not to its liking.

The Brexit withdrawal could undermine the delicate post-war power structure. It feeds into a readiness in different places to play fast and loose with this structure in the service of identity politics, a populist narrative, a fear of migration, an undermining of liberal democracy, inter-state rivalries, protectionism and a rejection of international institutions. In particular Britain could be tempted to work with other states to undermine the EU if there is ongoing tension. Politicians are currently in denial over a potential failure to agree a trade treaty after Brexit, especially if EU tariffs are seen as damaging to Britain. The latter is a declining power faced with potential disintegration and history has shown how states in Europe with this situation can be tempted to export its conflicts to its neighbours in some form. The US has historically been a bulwark of a united Europe but Trump is showing himself no respecter of this role and if he is replaced it is possible that his successor might be tempted down the same path in some form.

The delicate balance of power in Europe is being disrupted and so far states are struggling to develop the vision and influence to create something that can keep at bay its new major power challengers. While people like Macron are arguing for a new European security structure there is as yet no groundswell of support to replace Brexit and NATO with something that can guarantee European stability and security and address the potentially destabilising forces discussed in this article.

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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