The future of the UK’s economic relationship with the EU is dominating current political discussion. This is understandable, but from a wider foreign policy standpoint, it is not acceptable. We need to be laying the foundation now for how Britain will act, post-Brexit, to promote its interests. How will we exercise influence in Europe, a continent that remains deeply troubled and with which we share a destiny? On this, as on so much more, there is currently only strategic drift. It is as though the government wants Europe and the world to stop while the challenge of Brexit is sorted out.
This is not an option. For one thing, the assumption that has held sway for much of the post-Cold War period that western institutions would gradually roll eastward is dead in the water. The EU might still take on small additional members from the Balkans, but expansion to include major states like Turkey, Ukraine or Russia is about as likely as Vladimir Putin leading the Moscow Pride march.
Far from the West rolling East, a stronger case can be made that the East is rolling West. At our borders Russia escalates disinformation campaigns, conducts large scale military exercises and cyber-attacks, and is funding Eurosceptic parties and politicians inside the EU in a transparent attempt to destabilise and destroy the union. Turkey seeks to extend its international reach while it slips towards authoritarianism. Across much of eastern Europe, the democracy that defines us is either under assault or in retreat. China is increasing its footprint in Europe, and is pursuing a new trade zone from Beijing to Berlin. Its investment in Eurasian infrastructure may be a huge opportunity, but it may also undermine what’s left of transatlantic and European unity.
The cohesion and stability of Europe is also being challenged from the south. The flow of migrants and refugees through Libya is destabilising Italian politics and making a mockery of claims that each EU state stands in solidarity with the rest. The Gulf may yet move centre stage, as the slump in oil prices puts pressure on those countries’ social contracts. If the Gulf states fail, millions more young people will turn to Europe in search of hope.
Isis, although smashed in Raqqa, is regrouping, connected in a demonic arc from Nigeria, to Libya, to Yemen, to the Khorasan by digital command and control systems. And it has already taken just enough advantage of migrant routes into Europe to effectively fuse the issues of terrorism and migration in the minds of much of the European public.
Such distortions of reality must, of course, be resisted. This picture should spur more British humanitarian engagement, not less. It should prompt a determined effort to fight the politics of extremism and division both inside Europe and out. But from a long-term geopolitical standpoint, it is also important to note that the European Union itself is riven with divisions over how to respond. And with neo-Nazis demonstrating openly in the United States, and a president who is more comfortable condemning German trade and defence policy than he is the extreme right, it is pertinent to ask whether the West, as it has existed since the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941, even still exists?
When measured against the challenges of this wider context, the Brexit debate can generate only heat, not light. None of the assertions or counter-assertions made in it will change the reality that historic events are moving against rather than for us, while Europe and the wider West is ensnared in the worst crisis of co-operation since World War Two. With transatlantic bonds and European solidarity weakening, it is therefore more than a matter of regret that the UK government has no strategy to speak of. It is an abdication of the national interest, a forgetting of the bitter lessons of history, and a betrayal of the achievements claimed at such high cost by our forebears in the last century.
Beyond the economics of Brexit, we urgently need a debate about what other interests Britain has in the continent of Europe. How can we influence events in our favoured direction? It is only by helping to stabilise the European continent and work with our European partners that we can hope to play a role in re-imagining the West.
We need creative thinking on how the UK, France and Germany can deepen defence co-operation in a meaningful way even after Brexit. We need an emerging strategy of bilateral British relations with EU member states, and a British operation in Brussels that might be capable of influencing the EU’s future trajectory, assuming the latter goes on to survive and thrive, itself something that still cannot be taken for granted.
We need an analysis of which diplomatic missions across Europe we ought to be building up and why. We need a strategy for using other venues to promote our interests and to strengthen our influence, such as Nato and the Council of Europe. We also need a serious effort to develop a British model of civic internationalism. This involves utilising university networks, non-governmental organisations, parliamentarians, business leaders, scientific institutions, the British Council and others.
We also need heavyweight diplomatic thinking around some of the biggest questions of the day: how can we work with others in Europe to address the huge German trade surpluses which help suppress demand across the eurozone while feeding the politics of populism? What is our strategy for engaging with Russia and Turkey? How do we better co-ordinate the business of conflict prevention, development, and institution building in the Middle East? And how do we better co-ordinate European relations with China?
Brexit is simply changing the context in which such questions must be asked and answered, not in eliminating the need to ask them at all.
Underpinning all of this, we also need to be asking ourselves how a medium-sized power can punch above its weight to gain international influence at this stage of the 21st century.
Across this terrain and more, Britain’s political leadership is asleep at the wheel. It is the responsibility of patriots everywhere, whatever their political persuasion, to start filling in the gaps.
Ian Kearns is the former deputy director of the IPPR and co-founder, European Leadership Network. Liam Byrne is the shadow minister for digital economy, a former government minister and the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill