A key rule of politics is that you need to ‘be in the room’ and Brexit Britain isn’t, at least metaphorically and sometimes literally.
First published: February 2022.
I’ve noticed recently that I’ve started making cynical jokes on my Twitter account, which I set up to disseminate serious news about Brexit, as well as posts on my blog. They aren’t funny enough to be worth linking to (well maybe this one is), but I think my new-found levity reflects a certain grim despair about Brexit in general and the current political situation which, as I argued in last week’s piece, grows out of it. Like this apparently endless January, we seem to be stuck in a recurring cloudscape of Brexit dullness, decay and depression to which mordant humour seems the only sane response.
Business as usual
So, of course, there are reports of delays and queues at cross-channel ports. Of course, there are claims that they aren’t anything to do with Brexit. But of course, they are at least compounded by and at most caused by Brexit. We’ve had this on and off for over a year, and of course, it will continue to happen as the rest of the import controls get introduced in the course of this year. It’s one of the things which happens when new barriers to trade are introduced.
Equally, it’s not the only thing that happens, so even when there aren’t queues it doesn’t mean the barriers are having no effect, just that the costs of dealing with them are less visible, taking the form of individual companies introducing and using new systems or of simply not engaging in trade, which in aggregate slowly feeds into declining productivity, tax base, public spending, competitiveness, employment and consumer choice, and into increased prices and taxes.
It’s not even worth arguing about this anymore. We know the economic damage that was done between the referendum vote and actually leaving the EU. We know the damage that has happened to UK-EU trade since then. We know, and no one seriously contests, the predictions for what will happen to the economy as a result.
Similarly, it’s no surprise (but still scandalous and shameful) that the EU settled status scheme is still causing misery for untold numbers of British citizens, EU citizens and their families. It’s no surprise that the talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) “stagger on” with no sign of resolution, or that, as ever, they are bound up with the apparently endless crisis of the scandal-ridden, inquiry-riven, ramshackle, Heath-Robinson excuse for a government that Boris Johnson presides over.
Nor is it a surprise – in fact, it’s almost a given – that the Brexit Ultras have lighted upon a new ‘article’ as their saviour, as they have so many times before. Step aside Lisbon Article 50, GATT Article 24 and NIP Article 16, the latest wheeze is NIP Article 13 (8) which according to Bernard Jenkin, amongst other nonsenses, puts the EU under some kind of obligation to drastically revise the Protocol. Jenkin was one of those identified by Dominic Cummings as part of the “narcissist-delusional” subset of the ERG who were “useful idiots”, a harsh judgement in that it is only half-true.
If Jenkin’s barrack-room lawyering had any meaning, it was as a reminder to Johnson and Liz Truss that the ERG are watching the NIP negotiations and will jump on anything which to the addled brains of its members is a betrayal of Brexit or a diminution of sovereignty. In fact, the entire Conservative Party now seems to have dissolved into a series of groupuscules in a way that used to be more associated with the political Left. Apart from the ERG there’s (at least) the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), the Northern Research Group, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, the Blue Collar Conservatism group, and the Common Sense Group (for once, the clue isn’t in the name).
Still, the ERG remains important. And since on the wilder shores of Brexiter thought (yes, I’m referring to clergyman Dr Timothy Bradshaw) the NIP is regarded as an EU annexation of British territory akin to that of the Crimea by Russia in 2014, it’s no surprise that the Ultras aren’t likely to accept any conceivable resolution to the current talks. Which is unfortunate, since it is Russia’s current territorial ambitions which point to the urgent need for a rapprochement with the EU.
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Ukraine crisis policy: not a Brexit bonus
For what is very much not business as usual is the Ukraine crisis, and the continuing threat of a Russian invasion. Though here, too, there is a predictable Brexit angle in attempts to suggest that post-Brexit Britain has somehow become “freed of the shackles of Brussels” so as to be the “leading” European power, as argued by Conservative foreign policy analyst Nile Gardiner in the Telegraph. It is an analysis shared by the Telegraph itself in its editorial comment and, inevitably, by numerous articles in the Express, including boasts that Britain has been free to act without “endless EU waffle”.
The gaping hole in this analysis is that, even as a member of the EU, the UK operated an entirely independent foreign and defence policy. Moreover, when a member, it was one of the main blocks to the EU developing its own foreign and defence policies, and to the wider project of EU strategic autonomy’ favoured, in particular, by Macron and Merkel.
It’s true that the UK now has an independent sanctions policy but, since sanctions will always be more effective the more countries that apply them, that’s of limited benefit, whilst entailing a loss of influence over EU sanctions policy. Hence Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s “diplomatic blitz” around European capitals this week to garner support for the UK’s plans for sanctions against Russia. This is the reality of the alternative to the “endless waffle” of EU membership – a similar process of consensus-building but undertaken as an outsider, with correspondingly less leverage.
So the idea that what a good discussion of the whole issue by Mark Landler in the New York Times calls the UK’s “more muscular role” in the Ukraine crisis is made possible by Brexit is an absurdity. Britain has long been relatively ‘hawkish’ with respect to Russia, albeit not to the extent of investigating its possible role in influencing elections, including the Brexit referendum or of doing very much about Russian money-laundering in Britain. For that matter, it seems extraordinary that Brexiters have chafed so much against the EU’s supposed infringement of British sovereignty when, for years, Russian planes have actually violated our airspace and waters, and have actually murdered British citizens on British soil.
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Brexit Britain: not in the room?
Still, the point holds that the current British stance on the Ukraine crisis certainly could, and possibly would, have been pretty much the same even if we had still been in the EU. Equally, it is absurd to suggest that now, as an ex-member, the UK can emerge as a leader of European strategic autonomy. It’s certainly right to seek to work with the EU over the crisis, but that’s made more difficult by Brexit and certainly not easier. Indeed, the challenge the Ukraine crisis poses for the EU and the UK serves to show their common security interests and the way that Brexit is unhelpful to pursuing those interests. For whether or not Russia played a role in Brexit happening, it was Putin’s “dream policy” and both “diminishes the UK in Russia’s eyes” and contributes to the fracturing of Western solidarity that he is now exploiting.
That would be so however Brexit had been done, since at the very least it makes the structures for cooperation more complicated and cumbersome. But it is all the more the case because the way Brexit was done has engendered such profound distrust in the UK, especially over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with particular damage to relations with France, the only EU country with a genuinely significant defence capability. This isn’t a minor point. ‘National reputation’ is a fuzzy notion but a real one, and in the last five years Britain’s has plummeted, both because of its highly antagonistic approach to the EU and its carelessness with its relationship with Biden’s administration. That has profound consequences, especially when trying to urge EU nations to take a harder stance: even this week, as Wallace did the rounds trying to drum up support for sanctions against Russia, Johnson was denouncing the EU for its “insane” insistence that the Protocol be implemented to the letter.
One particular thing the Ukraine crisis shows is the, at best, naivety of the Brexiters’ constant claims that UK security was entirely about NATO membership and nothing to do with EU membership, ignoring the extensive and multi-layered relationship between the two. It is a folly now baked into post-Brexit policy, with the Integrated Review of March 2020 barely acknowledging the EU’s existence, whilst Liz Truss’s first speech as Foreign Secretary pointedly did not mention the EU at all. Notably, she did not attend a major US-Germany-France meeting of her opposite numbers to discuss Ukraine (though a junior minister was sent). Instead, she was in Australia. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it was a pre-arranged visit, but it’s indicative of priorities, and perhaps of misplaced priorities given the scathing attack from Australia's former Prime Minister on Britain’s “delusions of grandeur” and on Truss herself, who he described as “demented”.
Truss did find time to meet with NATO’s Chief in Brussels, and affirmed NATO’s importance to European defence, and she will go to Ukraine this week. So she’s by no means inactive in the crisis, but seems keen to approach it in a way which downplays the EU dimension. Yet the EU has not disappeared just because the UK has left it, and pretending otherwise is silly. Thus, whilst the primary axis of the primary Western response is the US-EU discussion of economic sanctions, Truss was reduced to boasting about the UK “leading by example” without being an integral, central part of that discussion. A key rule of politics is that you need to ‘be in the room’ and Brexit Britain isn’t, at least metaphorically and sometimes literally. That doesn’t mean it has no role, or that its role is insignificant, it’s just that it’s a bit less significant than before and a bit less significant than it claims.
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A post-Brexit performative policy?
Whilst EU membership would not have precluded the UK making a ‘muscular” response to Russia over Ukraine, it is absurd and potentially dangerous to think that the UK, with or without the EU, or the EU, with or without the UK, can do very much to face down the Kremlin. Regardless of Brexit, it is not even NATO but the US which plays the crucial role. The UK – and the EU – should in my view be strongly supportive of that, but neither economically nor, most certainly, militarily (including supplying equipment, training, and intelligence) can it lead the effort. It’s foolish to pretend or imply otherwise.
For if the UK gives the impression that it can do more than it is able to there is a terrible danger that it will lead to the Ukrainian people being let down. It may be that ‘God Save the Queen’ was trending on Twitter in Ukraine on Monday, after the arrival of British anti-tank weapons and military trainers, but (as, to be fair, Wallace has acknowledged) there is little or no chance of the UK being able to do more than make very marginal contributions to Ukraine’s defence if Russia were to invade.
Again, that would be true regardless of Brexit. But there is a sense that a desire to assert its post-Brexit identity is leading the UK to take a particularly assertive posture, in order to demonstrate its self-professed status as ‘Global Britain’. In Landler’s New York Times article, Lord Darroch, former UK Ambassador to the US and former National Security Advisor, is quoted as saying “I suspect this is part of showing we’re not bound up with the European Union”.
Seen in this way, UK policy on Ukraine might be as ‘performative’ as its independent trade policy – where trade deals are celebrated simply for being made independently, regardless of their economic value. If so, that would be deeply reprehensible. Performative trade policy is ludicrous; performative defence policy is reckless, and not only for the UK. For whilst no British politician is suggesting direct military involvement in Ukraine, expectations may be very different amongst ordinary members of the Ukrainian public, perhaps overly impressed by Global Britain’s posturing.
I don’t suppose The Sun is that widely read in Kiev, but headlines such as “Ukraine needs our help. Being British means we stand up for FREEDOM” above an article by the Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, which starts with a reference to British soldiers’ lives lost in the Korean War, might suggest a promise of more than the UK can realistically deliver. Moreover, as a matter of fact, British public support for NATO to commit to defend Ukraine is, at 47%, the lowest of the six countries surveyed, slightly below Germany (49%) and well below France (57%). In any case, it’s at least arguable that the best approach to Russia is the combination of economic and military pressure and the kind of diplomatic efforts at de-escalation being pursued by France and Germany within the ‘Normandy format’ meetings.
Even if post-Brexit posturing isn’t what drives Britain’s Ukraine policy, it is impossible to read the press coverage of that policy without spotting how it is shot through with Brexit point-scoring. Most predictably, that is at the expense of the EU and especially Germany: “Europe shamed” as “Brexit Britain cares more than Germany”, as the Express renders it. On this showing, cocking a snook at the EU, rather than aiding Ukraine, is the important part of the story. Even more grotesque in this coverage is the jeering that the policy has somehow put one over on “bitter remainers” and the “American liberal elites” which “similarly sneered at Brexit”, in Gardiner’s words.
Less grotesque but even more fatuous is the suggestion, again in the Express, that the crisis discredits the “remainers’” claims “that the EU was the best hope for peace on the continent”. It’s fatuous for the same reason as it was when deployed during the referendum campaign in relation to the Bosnian War: the claim about the EU’s role in peace was only ever about it ensuring peace amongst its members, originally and most notably France and Germany.
That fact is neatly avoided in Heappey’s Sun article, which doesn’t mention the EU at all as part of the Western response to the Ukraine crisis, but trots out the standard line that it was NATO (alone) that “guaranteed peace in Europe for over 70 years”. Nor does he mention Brexit directly, but can’t resist a Brexity culture war jibe at “people who sneer at patriotism and the Union Jack”. Meanwhile, a Sun editorial explicitly repeats the strawman of what remainers supposedly claimed about the EU and peace (as well as explicitly trumpeting Britain’s Ukraine policy as some kind of justification of Brexit).
It has been familiar since the referendum that Brexiters’ main pleasure seems to come from discomfiting remainers but, even if there were grounds for discomfiture in this case which, as I’ve argued, there aren’t, it would be a terrible rationale for defence policy. About the only less defensible one would be to distract from the government’s ongoing domestic crises, as some commentators suggest is what Johnson is doing. Equally indefensible is the attempt to downplay the seriousness of those domestic crises by suggesting they are trivial compared with the Ukraine situation. The problem is rather that Johnson’s government is so preoccupied with trying to scrabble out of its mire of scandal that it’s incapable of serious focus on Ukraine and other policies, including, indeed, the ongoing damage caused by Brexit.
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Two years on
As we approach the second anniversary of Britain leaving the EU, things have settled into a drearily predictable and monotonous pattern, with this week a fairly typical example. The drag weight of Brexit to the economy in plain sight yet denied or ignored. The lingering scar of what was done to Northern Ireland, and the preposterous bluster of the Brexiters about it. The steady undertow of declining influence and damaged reputation. The bogus claims of Brexit benefits and the pumped-up posturing of post-Brexit Britain. The gimcrack government that created Brexit and was bequeathed by it.
In such circumstances, cynical jokes are not just permissible but inevitable, even if any laughter they give rise to is that of desperation.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
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- Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 31 January 2022, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Flickr/Number 10 - Andrew Parsons. - PM Boris Johnson visiting North Wales. | 27 January 2022. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)