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Like it or not, we are tied to Europe’s destiny

by
04 December 2020

As Great Britain faces geopolitical challenges after Brexit, it cannot ignore its Continental neighbours, says Stephen Green

POLITICIANS talk regularly of Britain post-Brexit as “Global Britain” — a country looking outward to the wider world, ready for opportunities anywhere, open to new ideas, eager to explore new markets, and confident of what it has to offer in a fast-changing 21st century: a country, in short, that has its own distinctive place on the world stage.

There is something in this. Britain is no longer a great power in any traditional sense, but retains an immense degree of what the political scientists call “soft power”.

Its influence — its soft power — remains out of all proportion to its size. It has less than one per cent of the world’s population and its economic weight is declining. Yet global analyses of soft power show that Britain is one of the topmost “brands” in the world — and the trauma of the Brexit debate in recent years seems to have had little if any effect on its allure.

So, what will this global Britain be able to achieve on the world stage of the 21st century? How should it wield this soft power?

For the most part, the political rhetoric has framed the answer in terms of trade. And, indeed, the UK does need to trade successfully: given its population size and its geography, it has no choice but to engage commercially with the wider world. It needs to be good at this.

Outside the European Union, it will — so politicians have argued — be able to negotiate tailor-made trade arrangements with other countries (including such partners as the United States and China). It will also be able to put in place more generous and imaginative trade arrangements with developing countries than the EU has yet done.

 

ALL this will unquestionably be a priority in the coming years. But, though necessary, it is certainly not sufficient as a strategy for the use of Britain’s soft power. For the soft power surely stands for something: it is not just about being a good merchant in the global bazaar.Implicitly, it prompts some fundamental questions: What are Britain’s core values? What should it stand for?

Any honest answer to these questions has to confront, among other things, the reality of modern geopolitics

The overwhelming fact of the 21st century is the modernisation of Asia and the shift eastwards of the world’s economic centre of gravity. This has huge geopolitical consequences. New countries are taking their place on the world stage. And on that stage, a new balance of power — but based on the same fundamental principles that determined relations among the European powers in the 19th century — is coming into being. It is subject to the same sorts of stress as the old Europe was: in particular, one established global power (the United States) feels challenged by a big new rising power (China).

Does this mean that they will inevitably clash, as the Europeans did? Will the next spiral of history remind us of the terrible hundred years in Europe which finally ended only in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet empire? That would be a truly grim prospect: but, as the US and China watch each other, Britain — like other middle-weight powers such as Japan, France, and Germany — will have to decide how it is going to relate to those two giants, as one or both of them press others to take sides.

In so doing, Britain will find itself having to relearn an old lesson for new reasons. For geography matters, even in a cyber world. The European end of the Eurasian landmass is no longer the self-defined centre of the world: it is no longer seething with the energy which launched modernity in the 18th century and led Europeans to fan out round the globe in search of plunder, trade, and colonies. Furthermore, it is losing its strategic significance to the Americans, since it is no longer the fault-line of the 20th-century Cold War.

Yet our corner of that landmass is surrounded by neighbours who pose serious short-term and long-term challenges. The uneasy relationship with Russia, the tragedies of the Middle East, and the long-term demographic pressure from Africa present the same issues for Britain as for our European neighbours.

 

TIME and time again, over the centuries, Britain has had to learn that it cannot be unengaged in the affairs of Europe. Now, the challenges are new, but the lesson is the same: there is no longer any likelihood of conflict among the members of the European Union; but, whatever else the new global Britain means, we share profoundly important common interests with our European neighbours.

So, we cannot be indifferent to the future well-being of the European project. Like it or not, Britain remains tied to the destiny of Europe — as we have discovered before.

 

Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint is a former chairman of HSBC and an Anglican priest.

This is an edited extract from The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican reflections on national identity and European Solidarity, edited by Jonathan Chaplin and Andrew Bradstock, published by SPCK at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-0-281-08429-6.

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