Expert View

No deal would be a huge geo-strategic mistake

by David Hannay | 21.08.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Reasonably enough, most of the public debate about the consequences of a no deal outcome to the Brexit negotiations has so far concentrated on important day-to-day issues like accessibility of fresh food and medicines, the effect on prices and on the near half of our trade which is with the rest of the EU.

But the foreign secretary has put his finger on a quite different, less tangible but still serious aspect of such an outcome when he last week described no deal as a “mistake we would regret for generations” and as a “huge geo-strategic mistake” – a message he is expected to repeat in Washington today. Since then desperate efforts have been made to clarify these statements as being directed at the EU27, demonstrating the knots the government is tying itself in as it tries to placate its own no deal advocates, to put the wind up the other countries and to avoid actually having a no deal outcome, all at the same time.

Acrimonious divorce        

The most profound geo-strategic consequences would be on our relationship with the rest of Europe which would inevitably be plunged into deep and enduring acrimony. Brexiters like to think that we would be laughing all the way to the bank as we made off with the £39 billion divorce settlement. Dream on!

These are debts accrued from our membership, which we agreed last December were owed as part of our leaving. We can be quite sure that the EU would pursue us over non-payment through every kind of international court and arbitration machinery available to them. It is, after all, not in their own interest that any other member should believe that it can leave scot free. So any hope of a strong and enduring security relationship with the EU and of free trade with them would founder in a welter of name calling and bad blood. Only our adversaries, like Vladimir Putin, would derive any satisfaction from that.

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Then, how about the relationship with our principal ally, the United States? President Trump is nothing if he is not transactional; and a Britain locked in endless rows with its former European partners might not look like much of a transaction. In any case, in those circumstances, any future US president would re-orient their foreign policy activity with Europe away from London and towards Paris and Berlin – calculating, no doubt correctly, that any line of policy they could agree with those two and the rest of the EU would inevitably be accepted by London too. So much for our vaunted influence in Washington.        

Would the Commonwealth provide a substitute for these negative consequences? Not a hope. The Commonwealth is not, and is not going to become , a trade block or a foreign policy actor. India is already a major regional power in its own right, very possibly on its way to becoming a global one. The members of the Commonwealth will be a lot more interested in their trade and investment links with the the remaining 27 EU countries than with us, particularly if our economy remains in the doldrums as it is now. And they will not forget that we did not appear to have much time for them before we voted to leave the EU.

Risking our ‘precious’ union

And then, closer to home, there is that other union, rightly described by Theresa May as “precious”, uniting the four nations of the United Kingdom. That will be deeply and adversely affected by a no deal outcome. Not many Scots will blame the EU for that. So, while there is no immediate pressure for an early second independence vote, it would be foolhardy to assume that that state of grace would long survive leaving without a deal and would not be strengthened by its damaging consequences.

In Ireland the geo-strategic consequences would be far more immediate and more serious. No chance, in those circumstances, of avoiding border controls to levy tariffs and carry out regulatory checks. And Ireland would suffer the most collateral damage of any EU member state from a no deal outcome. So do not expect sweetness and light to characterise a relationship which has, until we voted to leave in 2016, been in an unprecedented period of harmony. 

So, quite a litany of geo-strategic damage to our interests awaits if we crash out without a deal. Enough, surely, to show just how feckless and irresponsible are those who advocate such a course . And enough too to buttress the case for the electorate having the final say in those circumstances.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

6 Responses to “No deal would be a huge geo-strategic mistake”

  • Sudden disaster? I don’t think so.

    A sudden change, any crashing out with airlines grounded etc, would not be a wise strategy for the Brexiters. The clever way of attacking another animal, in nature, avoids causing too much damage all at one go, and thus mobilising its defences.

    That’s why their aim, espoused by canny people like Gove, is a blind Brexit, accompanied by oodles of fudge, allowing the Brexiters to continue their destruction over time without anyone really noticing. And if they do experience the occasional twinge, well its really not as bad as those alarmist Remoaners predicted with their Project Fear.

    Britons are blind too because they cannot readily compare their current state with what it would have been like if we’d remained. So they are vulnerable to believing newspapers like the Sun, telling them they are better off, and will be even better off when more EU ties are cut.

    Brexit is like a slow virus, producing an insidious deterioration which is most obvious to visitors who have not seen the person for some time, who may be shocked. Those outside our island gaze on us with pity, a country whose time has gone, now afflicted with a terminal disease – Brexit. Unless some vaccine can be found against those pathogenic organisms Farage, Johnson and the rest, the future looks grim.

    Yet we can take heart that in this most pessimistic scenario we will have a useful role as Europe’s scarecrow. As it flaps its lifeless arms, Hungary, Italy and Poland will be warned.

  • David Hannay is absolutely right about the potential consequences of a “no deal” brexit. However John King above is also right. It is not enough for us to make more and more frightening predictions, however accurate. We must also do something to inspire people about the positive benefits of what is surely the greatest example in history of developed nations sharing sovereignty by co-operating with each other not just in trade but in so many other fields, while still retaining their own national traditions and character.

    If the argument for a “people’s vote” succeeds we then have to win the vote and this will require a much more positive and inspiring campaign than in 2016. This process should start now.

  • Denis Loretto is absolutely right. We must emphasize the positive of what has been achieved in Europe since 1945 by the European project, culminating in the EEC and then the EU.
    The facts of what has been achieved are all there but the ignorance in the UK on these matters is quite extraordinary. The main facts are simple and it should be easy to contradict the lies and misinformation of a Nigel Farage and others, for example, to demonstrate that the UK is indeed an independent country while still a member of the EU. However in this age when apparently the public debate is a matter of emotions not facts, the Remain side must also find the slogans which will resonate with the electorate and demonstrate the enormous benefits of membership of the EU.
    We must in fact take a lesson from the Leave camp with their fraudulent ” Take back control ” leitmotiv , a deadly but clever lie which has caused such trouble and confusion.

  • I have a nightmare vision of Britain, naked and prostrate over a barrel of its own making, approaching Trump to ask for the best he can give us….

    The twinkle in his eyes makes me shudder!

    51st state, anyone?

  • The biggest consequence for most people in Britain will be about food. Roughly forty percent of the food on British tables is imported, and it all has to be paid for. Crashing out will severely damage Britain’s exports and reduce the money available to spend on imports. This is likely to be reduced even further by a likely collapse of Sterling.

    In a country that has trouble feeding all its citizens now life will soon be dire for an even large share of the population.

    Government revenue s also likely to collapse. Banking currently pays more to HMRC than the UK spends on Defence, one of the largest departments in spending terms. Gilts will soon become much less attractive if Sterling collapses, and meeting all of the government’s debts could soon become problematic.