Dr. Eoin Drea is senior research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies.
It remains remarkable that for such a seismic event, Brexit continues to be most noticeable by its absence in the formulation of future European Union strategy. From the Conference on the Future of Europe to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s state of the union address, Brexit, Britain and the future of the Anglo-EU relationship struggle to elicit a single reference or positive soundbite.
This in itself is a remarkable achievement given Britain’s unique role in the EU landscape. A European economic giant and a 47-year veteran of (mostly positive) EU policymaking is now deemed less relevant than Brussels’ unspecified vision for connected Global Gateway.
It is almost as if — as in many a Parisian’s dreams — Britain never really existed at all.
Alas, as the first anniversary of Brexit approaches, it’s clear that the EU has learned every wrong lesson from the divorce. Riled by the deliberately provocative actions of successive British governments since 2016, the EU has been unable to separate the U.K.’s bark from its bite — and the danger this poses is swiftly growing.
Consider how the EU’s current approach to discussing Britain is based entirely on a strategy of “moving past Brexit.”
This is an approach that has been strengthened by the pandemic, which has allowed the EU to subsume Brexit within a broader reimagining of a more relevant, more assertive, more global union.
Europe, in its own mind, has bigger fish to fry.
But while “moving past Brexit” may make the EU feel better about being jilted by one of its biggest members, it is a woefully short-sighted approach to understanding Brexit’s potential consequences for its own long-term development.
Another weakness in the EU’s approach to “understanding” Brexit is that it has obsessively focused on Brexiteer misrepresentations of Europe.
This “it’s not me, it’s you” approach has constructed a narrative that views Brexit as a wholly disfigured British issue. Feeding into lazy tropes of British detachment, this blueprint has trapped the EU in easy tales of British exceptionalism.
No real attempt has been made to place the U.K.’s engagement in Europe in the specific context of the European integration process. Brexit was never just a wholly British affair. It was also shaped by the strategic choices made in Brussels over several decades.
The final EU miscalculation when it comes to Britain may be its most damaging. Brussels is continuing to underestimate the U.K’s strategic importance and refusing to acknowledge — or even contemplate — the political risks of an even mildly successful Britain.
The EU’s focus on the grinding technical details of “protecting” the single market — due to Britain’s annoying but highly effective diversionary focus on Northern Ireland — has resulted in Brussels misjudging the medium-term risks of Britain as a strategic competitor.
But that risk is real.
The coming years will bring a stabilization of Britain’s internal politics and a refocusing of the country’s economic priorities in areas where it has existing strengths. Finance, education, security and defense, Fintech and AI are just some of those areas that could lead to a stable, and relatively dynamic, economic framework for the country.
And for all the talk of the economic costs of Brexit and COVID-19, Britain’s economic outlook in terms of public debt, economic growth and unemployment remain considerably better than most other major European economies, with the exception of Germany.
Britain isn’t Italy, no matter how much the EU might wish it so.
Britain’s return to growth will be complemented by London doubling down on its strategic partnerships with the United States and the other English-speaking economies of the “Anglosphere.”
Although completely derided in the EU, Britain’s relationship with the U.S. remains the underpinning of its post-EU identity. This is a relationship whose strategic importance has been masked by Brussels’s perceptions of British weakness.
For Westminster, it is irrelevant whether Britain is viewed as Washington’s most important partner — London’s preferred choice — or as a “vassal” of the U.S., in the words of Clément Beaune, France’s minister of state for European affairs.
Even subjugation brings the benefits of proximity, relevance and inclusion in Washington’s wider geopolitical strategies. These are benefits lacking in other EU member countries’ relationships with the Anglosphere, as evidenced by the recent controversy over Australian submarines and the AUKUS defense pact.
It’s clear that the EU needs to adopt a new strategy toward Britain. All the hard talk in Schuman coffee shops in Brussels of “punishing” or “going hard” on Britain if the Northern Ireland Protocol’s Article 16 is invoked is ridiculous. Europe missed its chance to impose its economic power on Westminster during the Brexit negotiations.
What recent British actions have really shown is that beyond the political theatrics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan is simply to keep the Brexit fires burning at home through a constant feed of mutual Anglo-EU antagonism. An EU overreaction to British goading is the ultimate aim.
So, rather than succumbing to every little British provocation, Europe needs to take the long view — and claim the high ground. Brussels should shrug off British threats with a smile, talk the language of strategic partnership through gritted teeth and understand that Brexit doesn’t start and end with the Irish border and angry French fishermen.
There’s a much bigger game at play.
Because Britain won’t always be a political disaster. Soon it will be a serious economic threat.
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