Brexit: How Much Contagion, How Many Strategic Consequences?

Friday, July 1, 2016
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 99a, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 99a, Hoover Institution Archives.

Will Britain’s departure from the EU set off a stampede, prompting other members to bolt? The probability ranges from “very low” to “nil.” Like Tolstoy’s oft-invoked unhappy family, every EU member is unhappy in his own way, but none will take the plunge.

For one, everyone is feeling in his own body politic Britain’s buyer’s remorse on the day thereafter. The pound took the largest hit in more than thirty years. The Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays lost almost 30 per cent of share value. Britain’s domestic politics imploded, with its prime minister David Cameron slated to step down and the leader of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, suffering a stinging no-confidence vote. Down the line lurks recession for a country that, alone in Europe, has been enjoying sustained growth since the Crash.

Second, the countries fingered as exit-prone, especially the new members in Eastern Europe, draw far too many benefits from the EU—notably an excess of subsidies over membership dues—to take the British road. Nor do the most exposed members in the East want to face Russia’s expansionism on their own. In all countries, the neo-populist parties are not strong enough to force an exit. This holds true even for France, where the National Front regularly scores around 30 percent of the vote, but Marine Le Pen triumphs only in regional elections and in the first round of presidential balloting. In the second round, the established parties have always carried the day, and they are highly likely to do so again in 2017.

Post-Brexit, the UK will not serve as a shiny example of independence regained. Britain will not be able, as Brexiteers have trumpeted, to have its cake and eat it, that is, enjoy access to the Single Market while shedding the burden of free immigration. On that, even Angela Merkel, London’s best friend in the EU, is adamant. Britain will also lose its enormous surplus in the trade of services. The key driver has been the towering position of the City, which it may lose out to Frankfurt. Exiteers elsewhere will also note the historical advantage the UK has drawn from membership. Before joining, it grew more slowly than the EU’s Big Three, Germany, France, and Italy. Thereafter, it was the other way round.

The EU will have a big problem not so much in the economic as in the strategic arena. To begin, the EU will have to fend without Britain’s nuclear panoply. Left with nuclear France, Europe will have to do with one-half of its deterrent power. But nuclear forces, being the weapon of the very, very last resort, are not the most critical issue, which is the loss of conventional clout in a world where power politics is back.

Minus Britain, Europe will have live without the one nation, with France as quirky second, that can and will act strategically. The British retain at least remnants of warrior culture, which the Continentals have shed in favor of pacifism and international norms. They have severed the “Clausewitzian Continuity” that joins policy and force in a seamless web. Some of them did fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, but with miserly or merely symbolic contingents. The British, though, were for real. Nor did they hesitate to take back the Falklands from Argentina in 1982, thought they had to cross half the world to dislodge them.

Britain’s army is smaller than France’s or Germany’s. But it makes up for limited mass with readiness, training, and the ability to project military force. The German army that once went to the gates of Cairo and Moscow was practically overextended in the Naughts, when it fielded about 8,000 troops abroad. The British, second only to the U.S., deployed 10,000 in Afghanistan and 46,000 in Iraq II.

Just as critical as the numbers has always been Britain’s role as “interface” between the U.S. and the EU—Washington, please take note. Ever since Britain and the U.S. fought against each other in the War of 1812, the relationship between the two “cousins” has grown in intimacy. Chalk it up to a common language and a common history as naval powers with global outlooks. If there was ever a “special relationship,” then it is in the military arena, where the two have fought side by side in two World Wars, in Korea and Vietnam, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the last seventy years, this permanent alliance à deux has been enlarged to NATO, now numbering 28 members. But neither the U.S. nor Britain are as close to any of them as they are to each other. Pull Britain out of the EU, and the Continental bloc will be diminished. Just take Big Data cyber-surveillance. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is a little cousin to America’s NSA, but better at least by a magnitude than France’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), let alone the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). The NSA also shares more generously with the GCHQ, which is part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance (encompassing Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in addition to the UK and U.S.). France and Germany will be a lot poorer in their ability to combat worldwide Islamist terror.

Can the EU make up for the loss of Britain as Atlantic interface, intelligence hub, and engine of intervention? After the Brexit vote, agitation in favor of a European force is back. Lots of such ventures are already in play, such as bilateral corps and multinational battle groups. Yet they are small, and none has as yet seen military action. In a time when the EU’s supranational institutions—the Eurozone, “Schengenland”—are under assault, the largest leap into unification—a European army—remains in the realm of fantasy. All these projects have regularly foundered against the reality of an American-led NATO. With Russia on the march again, the Europeans will not tinker with the tried and true, the Atlantic Alliance.

The UK and the EU will be net losers if Brexit is actually consummated. If so, here will be only one winner: Vladimir Putin. Without little effort of his own he can look forward to Britain adrift and Europe in the worst crisis since integration began in the 1950s. Never in history have so few (36 percent of the British electorate) done so much damage to so many nations in such a short time—as the British have done during the Brexit vote of June 23.