Expert View

In radically changing world, we need our close EU ties

by David Hannay | 15.01.2018

It is all too easy, when a national debate is in full flow, as is the case in Britain with the debate over Brexit, to assume that the world out there is just standing still while we conduct that debate and some time at the end of this year bring it to some sort of conclusion. Easy too to assume that we can then just hop back onto the global bus and continue as if not much had happened. And if those on both sides of the Brexit debate, as many of them are doing, simply double down on the main arguments they deployed in the referendum campaign in 2016 without taking much account of changes taking place in the world around us, that too is human nature.

But the real world is not like that, and it is changing, quite radically in some instances, before our eyes. The most consequential change since June 2016 has been the installation of Donald Trump in the White House, with the likelihood that he will be there for at least three more years, perhaps longer. Many of the decisions he has taken so far are proving to be contrary to our own national interest – withdrawal from the Paris accords on climate change, attempts to wreck the nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA), knocking a hole in the potential two-state solution for the Israel/Palestine dispute by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising that city as the capital of Israel, egging on the Saudis in their de-stabilising actions in Yemen and the Gulf. And on not one of them does he seem to have found it necessary or desirable to consult a British government which prides itself on being his closest ally.

In every one of these instances the government, to its credit but also, one suspects, to its dismay, has found itself working in close concert with the other main European powers – France and Germany – to push back against those US decisions or at least to limit the damage they are causing. The foreign secretary has joined his European colleagues in an intense lobbying campaign in Washington to sustain the JCPOA and has then met the Iranian foreign minister in Brussels. In an odd way, the UK is discovering the strengths and benefits to us of European foreign policy cooperation just when we are negotiating to leave the organisation; and, in that wonderfully British illogical manner, we are drawing no wider, systemic conclusions from the experience.

How will we cooperate post-Brexit?       

But we surely should be thinking this through a good deal more carefully. Because in less than 15 months time we are going to drop out of all the European machinery for foreign policy coordination and concerted action. We will then become a third country, outside the meeting rooms where European decisions are taken, compelled to lobby about, rather than contribute to, the decisions being taken. And anyone who believes that the cooperation between us and the other Europeans will then continue to work as smoothly and effectively as before is guilty of terminal complacency.

Over the next few months the government and the EU 27 will be considering how best to ensure that such close cooperation can continue to take place after we leave and what institutional arrangements are needed to continue to underpin it. That will not be easy. But it will be important, and if the arrangements agreed prove to be less operationally effective than the existing ones then both sides will be the losers.

They will be the losers not just in their capacity to resist moves by others, as has been the case with the US in recent months, but also in their capacity to work together positively to promote their collective interests and values which coincide across such a broad sweep of foreign and security policy: working out ways to remedy the JCPOA’s chief defect, its relatively short duration; keeping a two state solution for the Israel/Palestine dispute on the table; strengthening the actions being taken on climate change; working up a package of policies across Europe, the Middle East and Africa to reduce the pressure from economic migration.

Of course, there is a simpler way to achieve a good outcome in this policy area and that is for Britain not to leave the EU in the first place. But that is a story for another day.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “In radically changing world, we need our close EU ties”

  • Thanks for this excellent article. Any chance the Daily Mail would accept it, or similar?!
    Not quite so daft as it sounds- I believe they have realised that Brits do not like Trump. Also the Mail on Sunday has a different, pro-Europe editor.