In the earthquake caused by this war, a grand reshaping around the world, relations between Britain and the EU must again become our biggest near-at-hand argument.
Almost nobody in mainstream British politics wants to talk about this. For Brexiteers any other issue may, in theory, be reopened, from tax promises to Scottish independence; but Brexit is a sacrosanct and holy victory that must remain forever untouched. Pro-European politicians largely agree, although out of fear of English nationalism rather than pride.
Following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, this cannot be allowed to stand. If we are really looking at the world as it is – if we are really in a sternly pragmatic mindset as Europe confronts Vladimir Putin – then the relationship between the UK and the political alliance on the continent can no longer be treated as the great unmentionable.
The reasons are obvious. Chinese autocracy is acting, unsurprisingly, as if it is closer to Russian autocracy than the democracies; China is no friend. Although Nato remains the rock on which Western security stands, Donald Trump is still prowling the US. America may be no secure medium-term ally. There are the remains of the Commonwealth, far away. Otherwise, where does Britain look for reliable friendships in the dangerous world of the 2020s? The Indian subcontinent? But the Foreign Office is already debating whether to punish Pakistan for leaning towards Russia by withholding aid.
We may be seeing a world dividing again into two blocks – Russo-China, and the democratic Rest. But even though the UK is a committed member of the Rest, internal alliances and connections will be essential. Other than the Nordic nations, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Mediterranean democracies, where is Britain supposed to look?
The UK is not going to return as a full member to the EU. So long as what used to be called the Conservative and Unionist Party and is now the Brexit party controls the country, it can’t happen. Labour is silent, although the Liberal Democrats, with whom the party may one day share power, are making bold strides towards a new policy.
But returning and turning are two different things. A European turn is becoming perfectly possible. Below the unchanged, crusted uplands of the Brexit debate, fresh currents of thought are beginning to run.
Let’s start with a minimalist position. Even among Tories, there is a growing understanding that a new European defence posture is going to happen. On the back of much higher German defence spending, a possible EU army is being described as the European leg of Nato. But where does that leave Britain? The Ministry of Defence is not thinking about this, but other parts of Whitehall are.
On the Northern Ireland protocol, Foreign Office rhetoric has become noticeably more moderate. Liz Truss is turning out to be, under the new pressures, a more pragmatic and flexible foreign secretary than her critics expected. It will cause her trouble, no doubt: on 15 March the former Brexit negotiator David Frost demanded the Tories promise to tear up the protocol, otherwise “the poison between us will remain”. This already feels like tired, out-of-date, pre-war language.
The relentless exchange of childish insults between Paris and London has virtually stopped. Any sense that the EU was “the enemy” has evaporated in the face of a real enemy. The question is, where and how far does new thinking on Europe go?
My colleague Paul Mason has made the current pro-European argument as well, I think, as it can be made. He argues that in this new world, “proximity matters” and that the UK needs to be part of continental solutions to energy as well as defence. Mason asserts that, far from the EU being a declining brand and breaking up, as hard Brexiteers expected, the Russian threat means it is re-emerging as a strategic power. Once it does, “the UK will become its satellite”.
Brexiteers, of course, take a very different view. They tend to ignore the big geopolitical sweep and concentrate on recent British successes. The humiliation of Britain’s slow response to the refugee crisis apart, there have been signs that Britain still counts.
Those early despatches of tank-killing weapons made Britain popular in Ukraine. Opinion polling in the middle of a war zone is unreliable, but still, a poll conducted in early March showed Boris Johnson second only to Volodymyr Zelensky in popularity there. Ukrainian soldiers firing Swedish-British weapons apparently shout “God save the Queen” when they hit. Zelensky and Johnson speak regularly, and we heard Zelensky’s expression of gratitude to Johnson in the Commons earlier this month.
In G7 conversations, the UK was in the lead in pleading for Russia to be cut out of the Swift banking transfer system, a particularly painful economic sanction. Finally, the UK’s relatively low dependency on Russian gas has allowed it to be more aggressive on the energy issue than, say, the Netherlands or Germany.
In short, the British government has done better so far in the Ukraine crisis than its internal or external critics expected. Russian money digging into the British establishment hasn’t bought the Kremlin very much. But this has little or nothing to do with Brexit. A more hawkish British approach would have been perfectly possible inside the EU. And beyond the Brexit party, the rest of politics is looking at better relationships with the European capitals. About time. British politicians can no longer pretend the EU doesn’t exist, or if it does, somehow doesn’t matter.
For the past few years, we have been living in an eerie, disconnected political culture in which, on the other side of the Channel, there is a hazy, colourless nothingness. Politicians have behaved as if the views and actions of Brussels are an utter irrelevance. They turn their backs to look anywhere else – the US, China, India, it doesn’t really matter. (Well, it does now.) Europe? It isn’t there. It’s a myth, old bean; an unreliable rumour.
This nonsense is ending at last. Senior Labour figures disagree about whether Britain should, in the medium term, try to rejoin a customs union, although almost nobody in the leadership would go for the single market now. A Starmer government would seek to build much better relations with Paris and Berlin, and go for a deeper Trade and Cooperation Agreement when it comes up for renegotiation halfway through the next parliament.
One senior Labour figure tells me: “To win the essential number of seats in Scotland, we will have at least to promise a closer relationship with Europe. In England, evidence to confirm that withdrawal was a catastrophic error mounts by the day and is beginning to show in the polls… politicians rarely win votes by running away from difficult issues. Promising at least a closer relationship with Europe is the expedient course of action, as well as a requirement of a party of principle.”
Attending to Europe is not a return to the EU. The above may sound minimalist but it would be hard for the Tories to attack as Euro-appeasement, and it would set a new direction of travel.
Anyway, the Conservatives have EU problems of their own. I have been writing here about the rethinking of the political class. But the rethinking going on in the country matters, of course, far more. We have no reliable evidence yet about how far the Ukraine crisis has shaken Brexit England’s belief in going it alone, a plucky surfer on the bloody torrent of history. But I can’t believe that these huge and intimidating events we are living through have no effect. And there will come a day when “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit” isn’t enough of a slogan for anyone. Put it another way: aren’t we all Ukrainians now?
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global