UK troops take part in a EUFOR Exercise in Bosnia - 2013
As the dust settles after another European Council meeting to manage the ongoing Brexit Crisis, there is a brief opportunity for those in British politics to ponder how they could have ended up in such a mess. After more desperate manoeuvring, Westminster and Whitehall need to step back and start thinking strategically about how to haul the UK out of its self-inflicted predicament. As UK state institutions struggle to cope with the challenges posed by Brexit, a fundamental reappraisal of the British state’s behaviour towards European partners can no longer be avoided.
The extent to which so many in the UK misread the behaviour of the EU27 states at this most recent EUCO meeting underscored how far the British state still struggles to engage with European partners. By singling out Emmanuel Macron as its supposed, many British journalists generated an easy to follow narrative in which the French were presented in their traditional role as Britain’s adversary. Yet those who contrast what they see as German moderation with French hawkishness missed the increasing exasperation in Germany over the inability of the UK parliament to face the political realities of Brexit. For months articles by senior constitutional scholars like Franz Mayer or journalists such as Ulrich Ladurner signalled that German patience with the British is ebbing away. That other EU states such as Austria, Sweden and even Greece registered concerns over the risks British instability poses to EU institutions indicated that Macron’s grandstanding reflects wider doubts over the UK’s trustworthiness.
British responses to how the EU has extended Article 50 point to deeper structural problems in in how the UK interacts with the EU. For decades, UK governments were accustomed to being one of the EU’s big players despite remaining outside the Euro and Schengen. From this position, British politicians and civil servants dispensed often unasked for advice to European partners who still needed the assistance of such a large state. Yet as EU membership became an increasingly fraught issue in UK politics during the Eurozone and Syrian refugee crises, British politicians and civil servants found themselves detached from the constant negotiations between other European states working hard to stabilise the EU system.
Cut out from the EU’s top table during such key moments of crisis, by 2016 senior UK politicians and civil servants had become less skilled at engaging with the strategic priorities of other European states. While the UK government under David Cameron focused efforts on China and other emerging powers outside Europe, the day to day domestic politics of many EU states the UK had become intertwined with were treated as a secondary matter. In taking the politics of EU states such as Ireland or Italy for granted, much of the British elite proved badly prepared for a post-2016 world where engaging with the concerns of each EU27 state has become crucial to the future of Britain’s economy.
Yet it is not too late for UK policymakers to finally listen to what EU27 counterparts are saying in order to restore goodwill the UK has lost across the EU. Rather than wasting scarce British military resources on grandiose global plans the UK can no longer sustain, deep engagement with the needs of EU27 states can help rebuild influence either as a close ally of the EU or still a full member of the EU. This would involve devoting more resources to assisting military efforts by France and many other EU states across West and Central Africa, while also helping Italy manage the fallout from conflict in Libya. Hard work to support democratic reform in Algeria and Tunisia would also reflect genuine engagement with Mediterranean EU states for whom these developments are of existential importance. A deepening of already extensive support for East European societies facing Russian expansionism as well as struggling states in the Western Balkans would demonstrate the UK’s commitment to stability in Europe.
Such a shift towards deeper engagement with the strategic priorities of EU27 states needs to be matched with much greater focus on the EU’s institutions. UK governments locked out of EU decision-making would have to devote extensive resources to ensuring that their concerns are still listened to by its European partners. Even if the UK remains in the EU, it would need to coordinate with powerful European structures such as the ECB or Frontex that the British are unlikely to join. Such a shift to making engagement with EU institutions that shape all aspects of society and the state the central focus of British strategic thinking needs to be embedded into every aspect of training and promotion in the UK civil service. The centrality of the EU to everyday life in Britain should also impel UK politicians to build much closer personal relationships with counterparts across Europe whether the UK remains a member of the EU or not.
This comprehensive strategic effort to restore British influence in Europe would also require UK journalists, politicians and civil servants to finally take the European Parliament seriously. Even now a deeply counter-productive tendency of portraying the European Parliament and its elections as a sideshow persists in the UK. Yet year in year out the power of the European Parliament to shape policy outcomes across Europe is growing. Whether inside the EU or not, the UK government as well as British news media will need to put much greater effort into understanding the European Parliament’s role in order to develop a more realistic approach towards the EU.
Greater attention to the politics and history of other EU states in UK media would also provide British audiences with a better understanding of European societies whose politics will shape the UK’s future. Television programmes about the history of France’s sphere of influence in Africa, Poland’s struggle against Soviet dominance or Italy’s war against the mafia would do more to help inform Brexit debate in the UK than another docudrama repeating tired old tropes about the Tudors or Queen Victoria. A renewed commitment to language learning in schools and universities would help ensure that future UK governments could find more politicians and civil servants able to understand everything their European partners are saying.
Many of these measures will only pay off for in the long term. But a government willing to initiate them would at least signal to the EU27 that the UK was finally willing to not just make demands but also to listen. For if the UK fails to engage with the EU properly, then the British might find in future that European partners they need decide that the UK will be seen but not heard.