Now that the United Kingdom (UK) has left the European Union (EU), London needs to develop a new geostrategy towards its own continental neighbourhood. This must go beyond proposals for the future UK-EU relationship, a vision for which David Frost, the Prime Minister’s Europe Advisor, outlined in Brussels last month. It must also regenerate Britain’s ability to shape the future of the continental order.
From a geopolitical standpoint, Britain’s primary objective in Europe has been, at least since the Tudor era, to uphold the security of smaller countries by preventing one of the larger powers from achieving – in Sir Winston Churchill’s words – the ‘overlordship’ of Europe, to the extent that it could draw the British Isles into its own economic and political orbit. Until the early twentieth century, Britain achieved this objective through a strategy known as ‘offshore balancing’. Each time a budding overlord emerged, the UK would lend its weight to construct and/or support a rival coalition to knock the ascendant power down.
With the advent of industrialised war – and atomic weapons – during the first half of the twentieth century, however, the UK realised that its established approach would no longer work. Railways and mechanisation allowed larger continental countries to achieve full military mobilisation before Britain could prepare a response. This is why, after fighting a second systemic war to prevent German ascendancy in Europe, the UK accepted a permanent ‘continental commitment’, involving the forward-deployment of the British Armed Forces on the European mainland, underpinned by formal political commitments. These were manifested through, firstly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and later, European integration, in the form of the European Economic Community (EEC, later the European Union, or EU).
This new approach – ‘onshore tethering’ – was based on the assumption that NATO would dampen the continental security dilemma that had so often led to the rise of authoritarianism and radical or revolutionary politics. With its onshore and tethered involvement in European affairs, Britain’s objective was to dissuade and deter opponents, existing and potential, from seeking to undermine the balance of power. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, described this as keeping ‘the Soviet Union out’ and ‘the Germans down’. Meanwhile, European integration, as a supplementary movement, would diffuse a specific set of values into its member states, neutralising their appetite for violent change. This is why, on entering the EEC in 1973, the UK set about transforming the community, away from deeper formal integration – France’s preference – and towards an enlarged single market.
Despite its successes, Britain’s strategy of ‘onshore tethering’ has come at great cost to the country in terms of military outlay and orientation, intra-European competition for influence, and democratic sovereignty. As the UK bound itself deeper into NATO, other European countries – particularly after 1991 – scaled back their defence efforts, freeing up resources to improve their national infrastructure, introduce lavish social security provision, and maximise their economic productivity. Although the UK also cashed in on the so-called ‘peace dividend’, it continued to play a disproportionate role in the defence of Europe after the Cold War, most recently through the largest contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence.
The EU, on the other hand, not only expanded, but deepened. And as a reunited Germany grew in power during the 2000s and 2010s, the two orders – one strategic (NATO), the other economic (the EU) – started to run out of alignment with one another. More importantly, it became obvious that the rigid European treaties, to which Britain had subscribed, could not be easily modified, let alone reversed. Even if the UK had entered these treaties with open eyes, successive generations could do little to change what previous generations of Britons had signed up to. In 2016, after 43 years, the British people decided that the infringement on their nation’s sovereignty was unacceptable and they voted to leave the EU, setting in motion a process that would lead to three years of political discord and change.
The UK now finds itself outside of the EU. Although the country has “taken back control” and will continue to play a key role in NATO, it has lost its ability – at least in a formal sense – to influence the EU from within. And it is not clear how the EU will develop in the coming years without Britain’s stabilising hand, not least because the leading exponent of deterrence of Russia, economic openness, enlargement and maintaining a strict distinction between the roles performed by NATO and the European structures, has left the bloc.
Will European integration now stagnate under Germany’s austere economic leadership, or will it lurch towards France’s preferred destination, namely a fiscal union with strategic and military autonomy? Either way, the EU could become a new kind of European ‘overload’, even if a relatively liberal one, ready and willing to push back against British interests, as well as smaller European countries that often share Britain’s perspective. As the episode over the Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System has shown, the EU is already prepared to push the UK out of collective endeavours to uphold its own ‘strategic autonomy’, even if this creates economic and technological headaches for itself.
Britain needs to recalibrate ‘onshore tethering’ and engage in a careful and calculated strategic operation – potentially without end – to regenerate its ability to influence European affairs, while also acting as a ‘flying buttress’ – in Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s words – when the EU comes under threat.
Given that Russia and China have both, in their respective ways, wedged a foot through Europe’s door, it is probably not in Britain’s interest to see the EU decompose. The withdrawal of the legal framework that has impressed liberal principles into many member states over the past fifty years would only serve to open the door further to hostile forces. To prevent this eventuality, the UK could try to align itself with the EU, in the hope that such alignment would coax Brussels into policies preferred by London. This approach could have short-term success, particularly if Britain’s diplomatic engagement in Brussels and other European capitals was stepped-up, but it is not clear that it would succeed in the longer term. After all, the UK’s broader interests in Europe will not always be the same as those of the EU and no formal mechanism exists, or is likely to exist, for the transmission of British preferences into the EU’s political and legislative structures, whether in the form of the European Council or the European Commission.
Instead, Britain needs to recalibrate ‘onshore tethering’ and engage in a careful and calculated strategic operation – potentially without end – to regenerate its ability to influence European affairs, while also acting as a ‘flying buttress’ – in Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s words – when the EU comes under threat. While these two objectives may seem mutually exclusive, they are inextricably interwoven and cannot be separated.
So, how could this be achieved? Firstly, by giving fresh impetus to the so-called ‘E3’ format. By emphasising this format, the UK could coax both France and Germany into working with it to set Europe’s foreign policy agenda at a tier that would likely become higher than that of the EU itself, leaving Berlin and Paris to press the pre-agreed policy (with the UK) down into the EU institutions and through them into other member states. The E3 format would then serve as an informal mechanism to propel the EU along a specific course of action – one preferable to London – while operating also as a force multiplier for the triad’s position.
The UK would, however, be unwise to place all of its eggs in a single basket. For starters, the E3 formal risks a lowest-common-denominator position (even if it might be higher than the EU position) – it would also incorporate French and German interests – while simultaneously alienating other important UK allies in Europe, such as Poland, Romania and Sweden. It would be difficult to prevent both Paris and Berlin from using the E3 format as part of their own struggle for power against other EU member states. Moreover, when Britain has chosen to work with France and Germany it has often resulted in policies that are either partial or ineffective. The E3 format was at the forefront of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, even though Britain’s interests in the Gulf are wider than those of the other two European countries, and frequently run in closer alignment with those of America. While the JCPOA may have temporarily stymied Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it has done nothing to prevent Tehran from compromising other British and European interests in the Gulf and the wider Middle East.
Most importantly of all, Britain, in many areas, often shares more interests with other European countries than it does with either France or Germany, particularly those outside the EU. In relation to deterring Russia and upholding NATO, the UK’s interests are often more closely aligned with those of Poland, Romania, the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. These allies have often got into line behind Britain in the EU to resist the French model of European integration and to support policies designed to sanction Russia. Feeling increasingly powerless, they would be likely to support renewed British engagement in European affairs. Likewise, the UK, as a Mediterranean power through Gibraltar and the Sovereign Bases on Cyprus, also shares – depending on the issue – similar interests with Spain, France, Malta, Italy and Turkey in the Mediterranean, the Levant, and North Africa.
So, while Britain should utilise the E3 format, it should be aware of its limitations. Consequently, other than inertia and a disinclination to challenge the status quo, there is no reason why the UK could not empower existing formats or build up new ones to encourage other European capitals into alignment. For example, Britain could establish an alternative E3 group – along with Poland and Romania – and a wider Northern Group, including also the Baltic and Nordic states, to form common positions. At the same time, the UK could look to boost relations and propose new formats of cooperation with its southern neighbours, particularly France, Italy, Malta, Spain and Turkey.
If the UK pulls the strings of these groupings carefully, it could even gain in power and influence in Europe over the coming decades, gradually placing itself at the centre of a network of relationships, to which it would be indispensable. There would of course be a risk that each group could have competing priorities, but it would be for the UK – and not others – to deconflict them in line with its own interests.
But what about the spread of illiberal politics in Europe? What if the EU is not strong enough to prevent the forces of populism and ethnic nationalism from expanding or taking root elsewhere, especially now that Britain has left the bloc? Here, Brexit has the potential to be the opening chapter in a story of creative destruction, leading to the next phase in Europe’s evolution. Instead of adopting a defensive, apologetic posture, the UK would do well to project a new narrative at the European level, one predicated not exclusively on the concept of a continental union under a rigid legal order, but also one based on a patchwork of cooperating countries, where liberal values and democratic structures would be organically grounded in sovereign nations. Britain might even appropriate the idea of ‘sovereign democracy’ from the self-serving regime of Vladimir Putin to fill with a new, more accurate, content.
In short, the UK now needs to play a very sophisticated European strategic game. It needs to bolster, though not prioritise, the E3 format, while simultaneously cultivating additional European groups. One such group could focus on the Mediterranean, while another could take a northern and eastern focus. The UK should empower and disempower these formats and groups depending on its interests, all the while strengthening NATO and, when possible, the EU, while discouraging the latter from extending its own mandate, particularly into strategic- and defence-related affairs. Above all, the UK should seek to draw the various formats together, itself acting as the hub of a wider circle.
This would prevent the empowerment of the EU at the expense of NATO, thereby holding European geopolitics in suspended animation, while dampening the security dilemma that has so many times in the past given rise to radical or revolutionary politics. It would therefore keep Britain ‘onshore’ and ‘tethered’ to the affairs of the continent, albeit through a new set of formats that would cost less in terms of engagement and national sovereignty. At the same time, it would generate the conditions for other mainland European countries to embed the normative and structural enablers of democratic politics, rendering the need for European structures increasingly moot. In short, Brexit does not have to be the end of British influence in Europe; it could in fact represent a new beginning.