How will Britain’s power in the world look after a no-deal exit? A chaotic exit from the EU would certianly destroy the UK’s international reputation, argues Nicholas Westcott (SOAS).
One thing you can say about much of the British media – they don’t let contact with the outside world sully their views on the Brexit debate. Weeks assiduously reading the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, The Times and The Sun while also talking to a wide range of foreign government and media representatives from all over the globe suggests the disconnect between Britain’s self-image and how the rest of the world sees us has never been wider. Brexit is steadily destroying Britain’s reputation in the world, and a no-deal exit will shatter it. It will be seen everywhere (but here) as a resounding defeat for Britain and a clear demonstration of its accelerating decline into international irrelevance.
Brexiteers, of course, see things differently. They see an exit by whatever means, at whatever cost, as a proof that Britain is strong, independent and free: ‘free’ to control its own borders, set its own laws, assure its own security, negotiate its own trade deals. If the rest of the world thinks differently, they say, just wait till we show them. Britain remains a Great Power with one of the largest economies, best militaries, biggest aid programmes (‘a development superpower’) as well as a seat on the Security Council and immeasurable soft power. As the Prime Minister, a master of boosterism, would put it, the British have an infinite capacity to make do and mend, use our ingenuity, vim and vigour to ping off the guy ropes of adversity, and leap from the telephone booth of Brexit into superhero-like action… or whatever.
But they are wrong. Let me explain why.
It’s all about power. Power depends on three things: economic strength, military strength, and having friends. If you have all three, you are treated with respect. If you have the first two, but not the third, your power is acknowledged but resented. The less you have of the first two, the more you need the third. That was part of the genius of the European Union: it provided small countries with guaranteed friends, prevented big countries going to war, and enabled them all to negotiate as equals with the great economic powers of the world – the US, Japan and China. In pooling their power, as friends, they made themselves individually stronger in the world.
How will Britain’s power look after a no-deal exit?
First, the freedom to control our own borders. In a no-deal scenario, the government say they will keep the Irish border open. But the EU will impose controls on it, to save the Single Market from destruction. Who wins? Not the UK: the border controls will be there. The EU will protect the Single Market – one of the most valuable economic innovations of the 20th century – but the UK will have imposed heavy additional costs on everyone, especially themselves. Not great. Certainly not a success. In addition, EU immigrants to Britain will fall off. But to keep our economy, agriculture and health services running, we will have to open up to more immigration from other parts of the world, to our friends in Africa and Asia. Which is fine, if that is what you wanted.
Second, freedom to conclude trade deals. Everyone will be happy to sign new trade agreements with us. The question is, on what terms? There is no free lunch in international trade (I know, I have spent years negotiating such deals). Size matters: the bigger you are, the better the deal you get. Britain is smaller than the EU, the US, China or Japan. Once we have left the EU with no deal – on the infamous ‘WTO terms’ – we will be at a disadvantage to everyone else who currently has a free trade deal with the EU, and will be demandeur for the best deal anyone will give us. The US Administration has generously offered a quick deal (though it is Congress not the Administration that will decide what it is and when we get it) and that offer will be to open up the British market to US food and US pharmaceuticals, on their terms. This will cut us off from, or penalise us in accessing, the EU markets that currently take most of our goods. And will the US really open up to our services in its current protectionist frame of mind? So who wins? The US, not the UK. India, Africa and China will all demand a quid pro quo for continued trade, an improvement on the deals they have with the EU. These concessions will not be what the UK wants, because we need the deal more, but what they want: more protection for services and industry, freer immigration access to the UK, less human rights conditionality. Who wins? Again, everyone but the UK.
Third, freedom of laws and security. The EU was built on the principle of the rule of law, and member states collaborate extensively on law enforcement. Security is one area where everyone has said the UK will be worse off if, under no deal, we lose access to police cooperation. Who wins? Not the British public, whose security services will be overstretched trying to compensate for the lost intelligence. And have the Royal Navy really enough ships (and sailors) to police all the UK’s fishing waters now we no longer have access to the European Court of Justice to enforce British rights, and escort British tankers in the Gulf, police the Red Sea and challenge China in the South China Seas?
Finally, in leaving the EU Treaty obligations without a Withdrawal Agreement, and effectively abrogating the Good Friday Agreement by forcing the re-establishment of a border in Ireland, the UK will be seen as untrustworthy – not to be relied upon to respect its international commitments. If in addition, it refuses to pay its debts by settling its outstanding budget obligations, its creditworthiness will also come into question – which could prove costly to both the government and the country. Do the British public care about this? Maybe not. But the rest of the world will, and a reputation once lost is very hard to recover.
In short, a no-deal Brexit would be seen as a heavy international defeat for Britain. We would not have got our way. We would have proven unable to negotiate – with our nearest friends – a deal that protected our economic interests. And the world will see this. They – the US, China, India, Russia, the Gulf states, African and Latin American countries, Spain, Mauritius, Argentina – all will say to themselves that Britain is now weak, it needs our support, and we can ask for whatever we want.
The Prime Minister will blame the EU (or rebel Tories, or anyone else he can think of) for his defeat. Of course. I’m sure Napoleon blamed Wellington for his defeat at Waterloo; Charles I (the last man to try to rid himself of a troublesome Parliament) no doubt blamed Cromwell for his defeat in the Civil War. But they still ended up defeated and, in the latter case, dead. What the PM’s famed War Cabinet do not seem to realise is that they have ten tanks and their opponents have fifty. That requires very skillful tactics to win. Sadly, the PM’s tactics seem more reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade than El Alamein. It might make a great poem, but not a famous victory.
In the anarchic society that international relations is becoming once more, it is important to know your strengths. But it is even more important to know your weaknesses, so that at least you don’t expose them. It is surprising that the Prime Minister does not realise this, riding into battle with his rusty armour hanging off. But nor it seems does the Foreign Secretary, nor the Chancellor, the International Trade Secretary, the Defence Secretary, the International Development Secretary or the Home Secretary, who are supposed to tell him. I am sure their officials are all too aware of the limits of British power, but it seems they are no longer welcome to explain them. Doomsters and gloomsters will be banished, like some disloyal SPAD.
In today’s international jungle it will also be more important than ever to have friends, and a no-deal Brexit is the best way to lose them fast. The Commonwealth is too disparate, and will wonder if this is how Britain treats its neighbours, how will it treat them? So Britain may have no option but to turn to the US, swapping 27 firm and equal friends for one big fickle one. Good luck with that.
There was a time, in living memory, when a British government ignored the realities of power and ploughed ahead to prove its virility to the world. But the Suez crisis of 1956 did not end well for Britain, thanks no little to the US. In less than ten years the British Empire had disappeared. This time the victim of a no-deal Brexit is more likely to be the United Kingdom itself, broken into pieces too small to even pretend to be a great power. Some might call it hubris. Others, unbelievable stupidity. But either way, Britain will be the weaker and the poorer, and the world will know it, even if we don’t.
Dr Nicholas Westcott is Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS.