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At midnight on December 31, 2020, the United Kingdom completed its withdrawal from the European Union. Having finally signed a trade deal governing the relationship between the two sides, London was “unshackled from the corpse that is the EU,” as Brexiteers dramatically put it. The United Kingdom was now free to seek its destiny as “Global Britain.”
But where does this destiny lie? British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sold Brexit on the expansive promise of a “new Elizabethan age”—a British resurgence around the globe. Britons, like their buccaneering forebears, could now set sail for new horizons—crafting grand trade deals, reengaging with allies on London’s terms, and reasserting the United Kingdom’s vocation as a “force for good in the world.” A recently released government report—“Global Britain in a Competitive Age”—reflects this optimism. The United Kingdom, it notes, will emerge as a “Science and Tech Superpower” and will “continue to be renowned for our leadership in security, diplomacy and development, conflict resolution and poverty reduction.”
Such bullishness, however, sits poorly with the damage the country sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic. The United Kingdom suffered the worst economic hit among G-7 states, and its death rate has been one of the steepest in Europe. The government has since stood up a remarkably successful national vaccination effort, but it doesn’t change the fact that the country’s two-trillion-pound public debt is at a 70-year high and rising fast.
The United Kingdom would therefore do better to approach its next chapter with a little more humility. The country can still play a central part in international politics if it reconciles itself to the role of middle power. Instead of indulging in Commonwealth or Indo-Pacific fantasies, London should seek its strengths closer to home—where it can use its new status as the EU’s main external partner to magnify its global influence.
Britons had little appetite, and no time, to debate the implications of their new position in the world before December’s trade agreement came into force. After five years of rancor, most simply wanted to “get Brexit done.” Thus, although the Brexiteer press rallied around Johnson’s negotiating triumph, the public mood was one of relief rather than triumphalism. The deal also coincided with the emergence of a new and more contagious COVID-19 variant in the United Kingdom. France, in response, briefly blockaded British goods and travelers. The ensuing chaos demonstrated the importance of trade across the English Channel and reinforced what failure to clinch a deal might have meant.
The British news media were quick to point out the deal’s very real flaws—among them, that Johnson had subordinated economic interests to the perceived demands of British sovereignty. Researchers forecast a six percent blow to per capita GDP over the coming decade, and the United Kingdom’s ability to export services to the EU remains largely subject to Brussels’s future decisions. Indeed, far from being “done,” Brexit will only now begin to visit its limitations on London’s economic, political, and human interactions with Europe. January saw a 40 percent drop in British goods exports to the EU, and continuing trade disputes over Northern Ireland reveal that the separation was no clean and amicable divorce.
The United Kingdom would do better to approach its next chapter with a little more humility.
Europhile Britons often view these developments as confirmation of their nation’s decline. But this gloom is overstated. The United Kingdom remains, for now, the world’s fifth-largest economy, a nuclear power, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It has a powerful military and formidable signals intelligence and cyber-capacities—the real heart of the “special relationship” with the United States. London’s global networks are almost uniquely extensive. In 2021, the United Kingdom will chair the G-7 and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. The nation belongs to the increasingly important Five Eyes intelligence partnership and will likely feature prominently in U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to rally the world’s democracies. The British are further endowed with a native command of the world’s most versatile language, whose status as international lingua franca has made the BBC an unrivaled global voice and helped British universities, courts, and diplomacy retain their preeminent reputations.
Moreover, for all of Brexit’s enduring animosity (the European Union gets no more than a couple of perfunctory nods in Johnson’s recent government review), the United Kingdom remains indisputably close to its erstwhile continental partners—geographically, culturally, and economically. During its time in the bloc, British bureaucrats often proved highly effective at securing their country’s interests in Brussels on issues including EU enlargement and sanctions policy, even as they played their role as representatives of the body’s most recalcitrant member. Arguably, British leaders now have an even greater opportunity to influence EU policy from the outside, with more flexibility than they had as a member and more avenues for impact than other, more distant outside powers.
As a nonmember with an intimate understanding of the complex bureaucratic organism that is the EU, the United Kingdom will retain a special ability to influence the rules that matter to British citizens and ignore the ones that chafe too harshly. To use this latent capacity, however, the Johnson government must be ideologically flexible.
London can best navigate the post-Brexit era by playing to its strengths and guarding against unnecessary commitments that stem more from nostalgia than from hardheaded national interests. Whether the country’s leaders are capable of such modesty can perhaps be measured through their approach to the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” they have recently proposed.
Since the Cold War, power and wealth have drifted from West to East, such that the United Kingdom now looks eastward in search of new markets, and China has grown more geopolitically assertive. But those consequential shifts do not imply that sending the Royal Navy to patrol the Chinese littoral is London’s best or only option—especially as the government continues to “pursue a positive trade and investment relationship with China,” to quote its recent report. The very term “Indo-Pacific” betrays the fact that the United Kingdom learned its enthusiasm from Atlanticist think tanks. Concerns over East Asian maritime security and Chinese military capabilities reflect American anxieties, not problems for a medium-sized island power perched off the west coast of Eurasia. Such attention to distant objectives reflects the evergreen British urge to ingratiate itself in Washington and play on whatever issue most preoccupies the United States.
London must occupy the space between Brussels and Washington.
The United Kingdom knows whose side it is on in the geopolitical conflict between China and the United States, but the hard lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq have surely taught London that “What’s in it for us?” should be the first question its leaders ask. Trailing Washington into the dangerous waters of East Asia simply because the United States insists it is some sort of loyalty test is not an effective use of the United Kingdom’s diminishing yet still substantial post-Brexit assets.
London must instead stake out its own role. Doing so means occupying the space between Brussels and Washington—nudging both toward its positions on issues that matter to British citizens, including trade, digital services, and European security. Just as Washington often uses its close relationship with specific EU member states (and its formidable lobbying power in Brussels) to force concessions on issues such as privacy, London can now play a similar selective and flexible game. In the coming years, for example, the United Kingdom could use its market position and political influence to shape EU regulations on green technology. In other areas, such as COVID-19 vaccine distribution, it can choose to forge its own path.
Transitioning into this new role will require a willingness to accept the EU’s importance—and a degree of humility that does not come naturally to contemporary British leaders. Johnson has based his government’s identity on a nostalgic appeal to British greatness—one that necessarily entails separating from the European Union. Worse, the bitter experience of endless Brexit negotiations has not left policymakers on either side of the channel scrambling to find new areas of cooperation. But the United Kingdom will either profit from its proximity to the EU’s oddly vibrant corpse or fade into nostalgic irrelevance.