Brexit, in its original form, is dead: killed by the new geopolitical realities created by the war in Ukraine. I doubt that the UK will rejoin the EU anytime soon, but its whole attitude to Europe will have to change – on defence, on energy and even on trade itself.
To understand why, consider the delusional text written by Boris Johnson introducing the Integrated Review, a comprehensive foreign and security strategy issued by Downing Street last March. Brexit, he said, had set Britain free: “free to tread our own path, blessed with a global network of friends and partners, and with the opportunity to forge new and deeper relationships.” The UK would be the buccaneering free agent, ducking and diving across Asia, the Americas and the Pacific, promoting free trade in place of the established trading blocks, and moving its armed forces into the “Indo-Pacific”.
Where is that freedom now? It has vanished, for four reasons.
First, China and Russia have forged a strategic economic alliance. The declaration co-signed in Beijing on 4 February effectively declared an end to the “rules-based global order” designed in 1945. In its place, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have inaugurated an era of systemic conflict, where trade, information flows and access to raw materials will move along paths determined by an alliance of militarised dictatorships.
Second, because proximity suddenly matters. Western sanctions on Russia are reshaping the world economy. Though Russia represents only 3 per cent of global GDP, the impact of removing everything from civilian aviation, to credit cards and McDonalds will be felt worldwide. You need only watch how urgently America is scrambling to appease oil-producing Venezuela to understand the importance of geographic nearness.
Thirdly, we have entered an energy war that will last until the end of the carbon age. The US is self-sufficient in fossil fuels. Europe is not. If Putin switches the lights off in Italy and Germany, the two biggest guzzlers of Siberian gas, then no matter how quickly the UK government builds wind farms and nuclear power stations, we’ll still be part of a continental energy crisis, requiring continental solutions.
Fourth, in this new situation the European Union either becomes a global power, co-equal to Russia, China and the US, or it becomes the chessboard across which the others fight. Hard Brexit was always premised on the break-up and decline of the EU. If that were to happen now, it would be a catastrophe for Britain and a victory for Putin. The emergence of systemic conflict mandates that Britain re-engage with Europe, on defence projects, in space, and even at the basic level of getting humanitarian goods out of Dover into Calais.
The EU knows it must achieve strategic autonomy – the ability to defend itself, regulate its information space, and heat the homes of 500 million people without reliance on Russian gas – much faster than it had imagined. Once it does so, the UK will become its satellite.
By choosing hard Brexit, Johnson deliberately walked away from 70 years of British leadership in Europe. Who benefited? Ultimately, Vladimir Putin. The next government is going to have to rebuild trade, energy, space, internet and defence collaboration with the EU, which means common standards and, ultimately, a common market.
The xenophobes, Little Englanders and Putin stooges who inflicted this predicament on us should never be forgiven.
[See also: I loathe Boris Johnson – but Ukrainians love him]