By Julian Lindley-French for Aspen Institute Italia
There are two truisms that hard-liners on both sides of the Brexit debate willfully ignore. The first truism is that there can be little benefit to either the British or to the European economy if the former is not plugged into the latter. The second truism is that Britain's security, and by extension that of Europe, will be profoundly weakened if the former is not also fully plugged into the latter. Being an island is not what it used to be.
The facts. Britain is a big power. Britain has an economy in 2017 worth al-most $3 trillion which is bigger than twenty EU member-states combined and, according to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, over twice the size of that of Russia. According to the OECD, Britain had the fastest growing economy of any advanced nation between 1990 and 2007. While no longer the fastest growing economy in Europe, it continues to be one of the more stable.
To give a sense of the scale of the British economy, the Italian GDP grew from $1.61 trillion in 2012 to $1.64 trillion in 2016, while that of the UK grew from $2.66 trillion in 2012 to $2.86 trillion in 2016.1 Not so many years ago, Italians were lauding the fact that their economy had outstripped that of Britain's. Not anymore.
Britain's importance in defense is even greater, especially thanks to the vital role its world-leading intelligence services play in assuring and ensuring the security of Europeans. According to Jane's Annual Defense Budget Re-port 2016, Britain spent $53.8bn on defense — the third highest in the world — with a ten year defense investment budget (2015-2024) of $278bn. This, depending on currency valuation, is the third or fourth biggest such program in the world.
Good Brexit, Bad Brexit and a Secure Europe
While it is to be regretted that Britain is leaving the EU, Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon does exist, so there is a mechanism for a state to withdraw legitimately from the Union. Naturally, the final agreement will play a big role in how Britain will be engaged in any future European security issues. EU hardliners should not believe that they can threaten Britain and yet still count on the British people to remain committed to providing security and to defending their neighbors, whatever Theresa May says in private.
In the best of all worlds, the Brexit negotiations will eventually confirm the obvious: Britain was never part of core Europe and, indeed, has at times blocked "core Europe" from integrating more deeply. For this reason, at one point, I advocated leaving the Union. I foresaw a situation in which neither Brits nor Europeans were happy or effective, and I was right.
Such a common sense solution will not be easy to fashion but if it could be reached then it would likely involve Britain becoming some form of "associate member" of the Union, exempt from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in those areas which are of great importance to the British people (such as control of Britain's borders), and with reasonable access to the Single Market which is a vital interest for both Britons and other Europeans.
Such an agreement would also enable the British to play a constructive role in support of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defense Policy. That would at the very least entail the establishment of leadership and command arrangements for British forces to continue to operate under an EU mandate and flag. Such an arrangement would certainly be in the British interest because when engaging in complex environments — particularly those to Italy's south across the Middle East and North Africa — the political identity of engagement is as important as the resource and force one brings to bear. The EU is hugely important in this regard.
By remaining seamlessly engaged in EU security, Britain would be at the table dealing with a range of vital issues for which British capacities and capabilities are essential: human trafficking, drugs trafficking, energy security, hybrid warfare, and, of course, counterterrorism. The latter is what the British would call a "cruncher". Indeed, suggestions from some quarters that, for example, the British might be expelled from Europol and the European Counter Terrorism Centre are plain irresponsible and have caused not a little wry smiling from London's high functionaries. After all, Britain pro-vides the bulk of the actionable intelligence: to exclude Britain from Europol would see fellow Europeans not so much shoot themselves in the foot, as invite terrorists in to do it for them. Indeed, whether it is for the sake of Europol, or the functioning of the European Arrest Warrant, there are powerful reasons to keep Britain fully engaged in the EU's vital counterterrorism work and in its homeland security efforts.
Should Britain be excluded, and its security and defense services fully or partially withdrawn, the situation would clearly become "lose-lose" one. Such a decision would also reflect a growing detachment of the EU elite from strategic reality, thus placing ordinary Europeans at greater risk.
Big Power Europe
So, why do some Europeans — such as Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt and his ilk — proclaim such animosity towards Britain and Brexit? Part of the reason is that Brexit has effectively ended the idea of a United States of Europe, to which they are committed. There is also the so-called "tyranny of small powers", from which the EU suffers and which is to some extent the legitimate ethos of the Union. Brexit will reinforce the power of Germany at the core of the Union and, however altruistic Germany might aspire to be (and it is at times altruistic and vaguely nationalistic when it suits Berlin) smaller powers understandably fear the return of "Big Power Europe".
Indeed, for many, the whole point of the EU is to constrain Europe's big powers; they believe, wrongly, that these were responsible for past wars. In fact, one reason Europe's security and defense is failing is precisely because it does not know how to wield big power. The tragedy of Brexit is that Britain is leaving the EU just at the moment London was beginning to win the argument. In the absence of an EU super-state — which would be the most effective instrument for wielding big European power and influence in the world, both hard and soft — the only way Europe can generate such big security power would be to let its big powers take control of big strategic issues.
The Implications for NATO
There is an argument to be made that Brexit will strengthen Britain's commitment to European security and defense, albeit through NATO. In late April 2017, for example, 800 troops of the Rifles Regiment arrived in Estonia to lead the Enhanced Forward Presence of Allied Forces, thus strengthening NATO's deterrence on its Eastern flank. Much like Britain agreed to commit a permanent force to the defense of Western Europe in October 1954 — following the failure of the then European Defense Community — Britain is keen to demonstrate its enduring "European" credentials by reinforcing its continental mission.
However, let's assume Brexit goes horribly wrong. Let's even assume that Scottish secessionists get a fast-track to EU membership, after gaining independence in some future referendum and thus helping to break up the UK. Should this come to pass, it is more than likely that the people of England — who comprise some 85% of the UK's 66 million population — would see the EU as the enemy. In those circumstances, a rump UK might well no longer bother to make the effort to be a "big power"; an angry England would certainly not be in the mood to make any effort to secure and defend the very people it believed destroyed Britain. And, thus, NATO would be grievously damaged.
Implications for Italy
At the politico-strategic level, the implications for Italy of a bad Brexit would be profound. A reinvigorated Franco-German Axis might prove no bad thing for the European Union. However, in the past, Britain and Italy have been known to work together when Berlin and Paris have confused their own interests with those of Europe. Britain's departure from the EU effectively ends the London-Rome axis, at least in formal terms.
At the military level, the idea that Britain should be "punished" for Brexit and yet keep its range of strategic partnerships within and without the EU strong is political fantasy. During his January 2018 visit to Britain, President Macron seemed to say with a straight face that while France is taking a hard political line over Brexit, the Franco-British strategic partnership can still be strengthened. It is hard to see how Macron's ambitions could be realized if Paris believes it can strengthen one strategic partnership with Britain while undermining another. Even with PESCO (a so-called "military Schengen", or "permanent structured cooperation", where troops and mate-riel could move more easily within Europe), Rome must understand that without the British, the core would be effectively ripped out of what has been the EU's defense ambitions, at least since the 1998 St. Malo Declaration. In such an event, the British could well sail off with the Americans in their new supercarriers towards some form of Anglosphere, leaving Italy high and dry.
With all due respect for a country that I hold dear, the real problem for Italy — as regards European security and defense — is not Brexit but Italy. Until Italy itself generates the power and influence it should to help shape Europe and its security and defense, the country will continue to be vulnerable to the choices and whims of others. Now more than ever, and in spite of all the challenges the country faces, Italy must generate the tools, means and policies to leverage the political influence Rome needs to pursue its own legitimate security and defense. This is tough love, but for too long Italy has been a big power that behaves like a small one.
Over Europe's Dead Body?
The security and defense implications of Brexit are clear. Britain will have to be given an exceptional deal precisely because its economic weight, its security tools, or its military might still make Britain an exceptional European power. Some say Britain should be given the same deal as Norway or Switzerland. With due respect to both, that is nonsense. Size and power matter.
To those who want to punish us Brits for Brexit, let me quote the words of the great and mighty Clint Eastwood: "Go ahead, make my day!"