Dr. Eoin Drea is a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies.
It remains remarkable that for such a seismic event, Brexit continues to stand out above all for its absence in the formulation of the future strategy of the European Union. From the conference on the future of Europe to the State of the Union address by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Brexit, Britain and the future of the Anglo- European have trouble getting a single reference or a positive phrase.
This in itself is a remarkable achievement given Britain’s unique role in the EU landscape. A European economic giant and 47-year veteran of (mostly positive) European policy-making is now seen as less relevant than Brussels’ unspecified vision for a connected global gateway.
It’s almost as if – as in many Parisian dreams – Britain never really existed.
Alas, as we approach the first anniversary of Brexit, it is clear that the EU has learned all the wrong lessons from the divorce. Angered by the deliberately provocative actions of successive UK governments since 2016, the EU has been unable to separate the UK’s bark from its bite – and the danger this poses is growing rapidly.
Consider how the EU’s current approach to discussing Britain is entirely based on a strategy of ‘going beyond Brexit’.
It is an approach that has been reinforced by the pandemic, which has allowed the EU to subsume Brexit within a broader reinvention of a more relevant, more assertive, more global union.
Europe, in its own mind, has bigger fish to fry.
But while ‘surpassing Brexit’ may make the EU feel better about being let down by one of its biggest members, it’s a terribly short-sighted approach to understanding the potential consequences. of Brexit on its own long-term development.
Another weakness of the EU’s approach to “understanding” Brexit is that it has obsessively focused on Brexiteers’ misrepresentations of Europe.
This ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ approach has constructed a narrative that sees Brexit as an entirely disfigured British issue. Feeding the lazy tropes of British detachment, this plan has trapped the EU in easy stories of British exceptionalism.
No real attempt has been made to place the UK’s engagement in Europe in the specific context of the process of European integration. Brexit was never an all-British affair. It has also been shaped by the strategic choices made in Brussels for several decades.
The EU’s latest miscalculation on Britain could be the most damaging. Brussels continues to underestimate the strategic importance of the UK and refuses to recognize – or even consider – the political risks of even a mildly prosperous Britain.
The EU’s focus on the technicalities of single market ‘protection’ – due to Britain’s annoying but highly effective diversionary focus on Northern Ireland – has led Brussels to misunderstand assess Britain’s medium-term risks as a strategic competitor.
But this risk is real.
The coming years will bring a stabilization of British domestic 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 these areas that could lead to a stable and relatively dynamic economic framework for the country.
And despite 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 remains considerably better than most other major European economies, at except for Germany.
Britain is not Italy, no matter how much the EU wants it to be.
Britain’s return to growth will be complemented by London’s strengthening of 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 US remains the bedrock of its post-EU identity. It is a relationship whose strategic importance has been masked by Brussels’ perceptions of British weakness.
For Westminster, it doesn’t matter whether Britain is seen as Washington’s most important partner – London’s preferred choice – or a “vassal” of the United States, in the words of Clément Beaune, France’s minister of state. in European Affairs.
Even subjugation brings the benefits of proximity, relevance, and inclusion in Washington’s broader geopolitical strategies. These are advantages that are missing in other EU member countries’ relations with the Anglosphere, as evidenced by the recent controversy over Australian submarines and the AUKUS defense pact.
It is clear that the EU must adopt a new strategy towards Great Britain. All the harsh talk in Schuman cafes in Brussels about ‘punishing’ or ‘going tough’ on Britain if Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol is invoked is ridiculous. Europe missed its chance to impose its economic power on Westminster during the Brexit negotiations.
What recent UK actions have really shown is that beyond political theatrics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan is simply to keep the Brexit fires at home through a steady stoke of antagonism mutual Anglo-European. An EU overreaction to the British sting is the ultimate goal.
So rather than succumb to every little British provocation, Europe must take a long view and claim the heights. Brussels should ignore British threats with a smile, speak the language of strategic partnership with gritted teeth, and understand that Brexit does not start and end with the Irish border and angry French fishermen.
There is a much bigger game at play.
Because Britain will not always be a political disaster. Soon it will be a serious economic threat.