How Brexit may strengthen the west

The Brexit vote of 2016 was ardently wished for in Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s belief was that Britain’s departure from the EU would weaken the western alliance.

But it now looks as if the Russian president got it wrong. Far from weakening the west, Brexit may end up strengthening it. Without Britain as a member, the EU is once again progressing towards “ever closer union”. And a stronger EU will be a more effective partner for a post-Donald Trump America.

In the long run, the relationship between the EU and the UK could settle down into something analogous to the relationship between the US and Canada. The Canadians/British have no desire to join the US/EU. They accept that an asymmetry in power with a much larger neighbour is the consequence of maintaining their political independence. But both sides in these lopsided partnerships can still benefit from deep economic integration and strategic co-operation based on shared interests, values and geography.

To understand how things might develop, you need to grasp the significance of the most recent European Council meeting in July. After one of their longest ever summits, EU leaders agreed to borrow collectively on the financial markets.

Initially, the hundreds of billions of euros raised will be used to mitigate the impact of coronavirus. But the EU has realised that it can borrow large sums of money from the markets at very low rates. In future, this financial firepower could fund ambitious new projects, such as collective defence. Developing a large market for EU debt will meet investor demands for new safe assets and enlarge the international role of the euro, strengthening the EU’s political power.

This historic advance for the EU’s longstanding goal of “ever closer union” would not have happened if the UK were still a member of the club. The EU’s “frugal four” of the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark fought hard against the agreement. With the UK still around, they could have relied on a British veto. But, in the post-Brexit EU, a Franco-German combination is once again hard to stop. The issuance of common debt may, therefore, be the first of a series of steps towards closer political union. The establishment of common taxes to underpin the new debt is the obvious next step.

Watching this development forces me to accept that two groups I have often criticised — European federalists and Brexiters — both had a point. The federalists were right that Britain was blocking the progress of the European project. The Brexiters were correct that the UK was unlikely ever to be comfortable in the more deeply integrated EU that is emerging.

Of course, things could still go wrong. Progress could be blocked by national parliaments. There could be a renewed economic crisis in southern Europe. But it seems more likely that, after a 20-year hiatus, the European project is regaining momentum.

At a time when the US is increasingly focused on rivalry with China, an intelligent administration will recognise the benefits of a strengthened EU. President Trump, who regards the EU as a dangerous rival, will not see things that way. But if Joe Biden becomes president, his administration would emphasise rebuilding America’s alliances.

The Biden camp knows that the US can no longer underpin the world order on its own. A more balanced western alliance, with a strengthened EU as its second pillar, looks like an attractive alternative to being the “sole superpower” — particularly if the Europeans used some of their new financial strength to build up their defence capabilities, responding to longstanding US concerns about “burden-sharing”.

A generation ago, the US might have feared with reason that a more integrated EU would see Washington as its principal global rival. But that kind of European thinking belongs to a bygone age of American unipolarity. Looking at today’s world, EU policymakers increasingly understand that the long-term threats to Europe’s collective interests are China, Russia and instability in the Middle East and Africa. A reliable US presidency, which may be just a few months away, would be an indispensable partner in tackling those challenges.

Where does Britain fit into all this? That, too, is becoming clearer. The toughest part of the post-Brexit talks still lies ahead. A “no deal” outcome is possible. Even a deal could leave lingering disputes on issues such as fish and finance.

But the new EU-UK relationship will eventually settle down. Even the dimmest Brexiters will grasp that the EU is not, in fact, the major threat to British interests and freedoms. On the contrary, Germany, France and the other European democracies are indispensable partners in dealing with threats beyond Europe — in particular, authoritarian powers and fragile states.

For its part, a stronger and more confident EU need no longer fear that Brexit is the first step towards the destruction of the European project. It could therefore afford to be less defensive and more creative in building a new relationship with the UK.

In the long run, Britain should aspire to establish a new “special relationship” with Brussels to complement its existing “special relationship” with Washington. These two key partnerships would place the UK back at the centre of a revived western alliance.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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