Nick Heenan observes that the context within which Brexit Britain should be seen has changed significantly since the 2016 referendum, not least because of the Ukraine war.
In post-Brexit Britain, the political shift away from the EU towards the Asia/Pacific region was a major change of policy, albeit enacted by central government in a rather incoherent and hurried manner and without even involving the Foreign Office in any serious planning and discussion. Instead, this policy decision was taken on purely superficial and politically motivated arguments, aimed primarily at justifying Brexit to a domestic UK audience. Subsequent actions taken have not been so strategic either, such as the minor trade deals struck with Australia and Japan, and the reduction in international aid (in breach of our legal commitments) and related abolition of the Department for International Development. The latter have already led to the loss of UK influence in key areas around the world.
On 2 March 2022, an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution deploring Russia's invasion of Ukraine and demanding a full withdrawal of Russian forces and a reversal of its decision to recognise the self-declared People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. This resolution was approved by 141 UN member states, with five member states unsurprisingly voting against it (Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea), 35 member states abstaining (including China, India, Pakistan and much of Africa) and 12 being absent (mainly smaller countries, plus Venezuela which is currently suspended from voting). At first glance, this vote might look like overwhelming support for the position of the USA and other Western democracies, in defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine as a sovereign state, and the rule of international law. However, this UN outcome can be interpreted in another way, in which all of the major world powers that abstained are “sitting on the fence,” and simply waiting to see which way this war will go before openly deciding which side to support.
Reflecting on the democratic principle of one man one vote, if the abstaining nations of China, India, Pakistan, and African nations were to ultimately support the Russian invasion, then together they would represent well over 50% of the world’s population. Many of these same countries are governed autocratically rather than democratically. The Western democracies position of upholding international law then becomes a minority position of the world’s population, and a new “World Order” would emerge based on the balance of military power amongst a few major empires, rather than on international law embedded in treaties. Perception and fear also become more important than truth in commanding the loyalty of a domestic population. Even in the USA.
So where is Europe in this scenario? Unfortunately (in this context at least), the European Union is not and probably never will become a nation state as such. It has no seat at the table of the United Nations, and so remains just an (incomplete) alignment of 27 individual sovereign states that (according to Guy Verhofstadt MEP) collectively lacks the decision-making infrastructure at EU-level to speak with a single voice and to effectively deploy its combined military force.
Brexit has enabled the UK to follow its own path as a global power, having the aspiration not only to secure “higher value” trade agreements than it used to have as part of the EU’s common market, but also to deploy its “soft power” effectively on the world stage. Yet so far, the unpleasant truth behind all of the political rhetoric from Westminster is that British exports have crashed as a result of Brexit, and that progressively since WW1, the British Empire of the 19th century has been systematically dismantled to the point that it no longer exists.
The harsh reality is that the UK’s reach and influence in the world has dramatically declined over the past 100 years. Faced with autocratic regimes now ruling over half of the world’s population, soft power based on the rule of law and democratic order are simply no match for hard military power and a total disregard for international law, whenever this be found to stand in the way of an Empire’s “growth”.
Even looking beyond the Commonwealth, whilst it may be expedient for many other countries to still “like” the UK as a friendly nation, no major power sees the UK as a serious power or true peer. Instead, having cast ourselves adrift from the EU, we stand alone, as a small island and a benevolent trading nation that remains very much dependent on others for much of its food and natural resources.
Perversely, the Ukrainian war has recently brought the UK back in closer alignment with the EU and in the longer term could even become a catalyst for a reconciliation. Yet this is perhaps equally reflecting the strategic weakness of the many small democratic states across our continent, in the face of much larger and far more powerful autocratic empires. There are certainly some strengths to be found in numbers and solidarity: These are necessary though not in themselves sufficient for our democratic nations to survive as independent states.
Yes, we are all still part of the NATO alliance and so allied to the US “empire”. Yet if one or more of the newer world Empires to the East were to focus their expansionist tendencies in our direction, we and our European neighbours would be effortlessly brushed aside or absorbed. In recent weeks, neither Russia nor China seem to have been impressed or in any way deterred by the sabre-rattling of British Prime Ministers.
So, if the UK has gained the freedom to follow its own global path, is this really to be seen as an economic benefit of Brexit, or yet another example of the nation being far worse off? Or seen in the light of a new world order, would it perhaps be more accurate to think of the UK’s newfound freedom and independence as representing an existential threat to the nation?
Nick Heenan is a London4Europe Committee Member. He spent most of his career working for the European Commission in Brussels. London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.