This is Not the End of Britain’s European Story: Let’s Stay Connected Until the Tide Turns

By Sandra Khadhouri, Project Partner, Keeping Channels Open, supported by European Dialogue, Friedrich Naumann Foundation

This year’s coronavirus has taken the world by storm and created a sense of powerlessness among citizens everywhere. We have all had to be creative in finding ways to stay positive, productive and supportive of our local communities in the face of this unprecedented situation. Another area beyond the control of the average British person has been the course of the Brexit negotiations and the shape of the final deal. There has been little opportunity to influence a more constructive UK approach which safeguards precious trade and cooperation in a number of areas. Lobbying efforts by campaigners, opposition parties, and businesses has changed little, including the publicly-supported campaign for an extension to the transition period beyond 2020 in light of COVID disruption. This all begs the question – how do we proactively take action in the years ahead, rather than continuing to be a victim of circumstance, lamenting the damage to UK-EU trade and relations as powerless bystanders?

This was the origin of the project Keeping Channels Open – Beyond Brexit, supported by FNF, which has brought together multidisciplinary stakeholders from the world of politics, academia and civil society to scope out how to keep UK-US-EU channels open. This new network is focusing on a multi-pronged response to Brexit and other populist challenges to democratic norms, fact-based communications and multilateralism. In a series of dialogues, participants from US, UK and Europe are debating strategies to arrest the damage, mobilize effective initiatives and engage UK citizens in productive and fact-based dialogue about the way ahead.

Areas at Risk from Brexit

The introductory roundtable welcomed 20 politicians from UK and European political parties, former senior civil servants and ambassadors, and think-tanks to explore the many areas of cooperation at risk from Brexit against the context of different deal outcomes and Trump’s challenge to systems of governance and multilateralism. Contributors were energized and forthright in their views…

“The sort of UK-EU deal we wanted is one that keeps British access as far as possible to the single market for the sake of our supply chains and exports, access to Europol and police co-operation, Erasmus and research programmes, and technical agencies like air safety and food. We need to try and keep that access. But if there is no deal, or a minimalist sort of deal, those sorts of links are lost and at risk.”

“There is a pervasive sentiment in the Conservative party that it’s only when we have left the EU completely and purged ourselves of every link, that we can start resetting our relationship with the EU.”

“Security and justice are rather the Cinderella of this negotiation– totally ignored. Everyone talks about trade issues but not these vital issues. The impact of Brexit on security is things will be slower, more resource-intensive and as a result, citizens will be less safe.”

“We’re stumbling into a list of things we know we don’t want, and for which electoral support is assumed, but we need a positive agenda. The EU will develop in a different way without the UK, and the UK is going to have to find ways to relate to it.”

“The notion of the European project is incomprehensible to UK voters. There has been no proper debate about how the UK relates to Europe since 1945, not even in the last years. Conversely, the UK has got to understand the massive investments our neighbours have made, culturally, politically and economically in the EU project.”

“There is no real alternative on offer in the UK that appears to be credible – it’s all absolutist now and half-way houses don’t have an appeal which is saleable to the public. This has always been one of the problems with countering Brexit. There’s no narrative. The public are just sitting and watching – they don’t have much confidence in this Government but are waiting to see what happens.”

“The UK will no longer be able to rely on votes and vetoes in any of the European institutions and many of the formal avenues for influence in overseas missions have also narrowed. The Government can’t rely on formal engagement alone to influence the EU – it has to be far more active in informal networks, cultivating think tanks and investing in building relationships.”

“All the networks and coffees between Brits and Europeans, so painstakingly built up, are disappearing already, all the meetings to which British participants are no longer invited. To plug these gaps will mean a lot of hard work involving the public sector, private sector, cultural sectors. The country first of all has to think as a whole about the relations it wants with the rest of its continent and then set about rebuilding them.”

Global Britain

On foreign policy, there was a lack of clarity among roundtable participants on the meaning and goals of ‘Global Britain’, and what Britain was offering to its allies in policy, influence and resources. This ambiguity risked marginalizing the UK. A wish was expressed for a common UK-EU-US agenda and cooperation mechanisms.

“Global Britain is an empty slogan that seems to harken back to the days of Empire but without clarity as to what that means in today’s world.”

“The UK was an effective global player. We did real things, and we were able to do that because the UK could walk into an EU meeting with a set of actions and push 27 countries to come along with us.”

“The real question is how much value do we still have if we can’t bring the EU with us on sanctions regimes. It’s no use the UK doing sanctions by ourselves. It’s not that we can’t be a significant global player, but we’re going to have to work a lot harder. We’ll have to pay to play, to be at the table.”

“The UK risks neither being valuable to the EU, nor the Americans because it is no longer core within the EU. The UK is also uncomfortable with where America is heading on some foreign policy issues. So, UK could end up in some sort of splash in the mid-Atlantic, aligned with neither EU nor US, and actually irritating both of them.”

“The US don’t want a junior partner tagging along behind them on every single international stage. They want a country which can step up and lead on particular issues and alleviate the burden on them – as France has done in Mali.”

“We in Germany already miss UK a lot because it was a partner for us in very crucial political areas, not only trade but also defence and foreign policy, especially in our relationship to Russia”

“For both France and Germany, there are big question marks about where UK foreign policy  is going post-Brexit in terms of its foreign policy…The E3 format of UK, France and Germany foreign policy co-ordination dates back to mid 2000s and negotiations over Iran nuclear issues. This format has received more significance post-Brexit as an alternative way for the UK to remain anchored firmly in EU foreign policy debates.”

Solutions

The expert group turned its collective mind to options for connectivity over the coming years. All agreed it was crucial to strengthen existing channels and open new links on many levels to compensate for UK becoming a third country and losing access to the Single Market, Customs Union, essential programmes and 43 EU Agencies. More links would be needed at the level of governments and diplomats; political parties; regions and cities; trade, industry and sectors; academia and think tanks; education, culture and civil society.

There was consensus that the UK would have to work twice as hard to maintain influence, cooperation and information exchange. Trade and business would still need to stay aligned on EU rules and standards in order to export to EU. Education and cultural collaborations could promote the inclusion of a “European project” in the UK story, encouraging the appreciation of a common identity, expanded horizons and shared future. Some felt it would be up to the next generation to push for UK-EU closeness through areas of common concern like climate change, inequality and job mobility.

“The old argument about the EU was that jaw-jaw was better than war-war. The danger at the moment is that many of our politicians and young people will not be engaging with others across the EU about the big challenges we face in terms of public policy.”

“Brexit is not taking place in a vacuum. The world has moved on since the shenanigans in the UK parliament last year. While Brexit still consumes the UK, the rest of the world has moved on; Coronavirus and the economy are their current concerns. For the US, China is the big challenge. The UK must move forward and engage with these new realities.”

In 10 or 15 years, when the next generation now in their 20s and 30s come towards the levers of power, we’re going to see a very different British approach to Europe, and Europe will have changed too. On that timescale, I’m more optimistic. But we’re in for a very rough ride over the next decade.”.

“There are bilateral young leaders’ programmes between Britain and France, for example. It’s critical we find ways of bringing young parliamentarians together, because there’s now a whole new crop of British politicians who won’t have any contacts in the EU, so networks are absolutely vital.”

“I can see links could be developed through the EU-UK Friendship Group in the European Parliament, and an enhanced role for the annual Anglo-German Koenigswinter Conference, the Anglo-Italian conference Pontignano, the Franco-British Council and other bilateral forums.”

“UK must decide its top priorities in Europe, understand better how Brussels works, learn from other third countries, double down on its roles in other institutions like G7, Security Council, NATO, OSCE….”

“UK must also remain active in all kinds of institutions of civil society, political parties, the EU Trade Union Confederation, Business Europe, the European law societies, NGOs, and think-tanks which work internationally these days.”

“As well as political party connections, we need to organise industrial and engineering exchanges, craft and specialist exchanges, educational initiatives. We’re going to need all those relationships to have any sort of successful economy in the future.”

“Green politics makes absolutely no sense except as global politics. People know that with the environment – species loss or climate change – we need cooperation. This should bring us together across borders.”

“The Franco-German dialogue after World War II was a great initiative helping to stabilise Europe and bring the 2 countries closer on every level. Even today, we have joint activities for governments, young people, scientists, economists, town twinning…What can we learn from that model to help the UK population, especially youth, develop a sense of commonality with Europe and not drift away?”

Brexit is the end of an era, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of the UK’s European story. Things may change again, after a period of introspection and internal change. The network we are building through Keeping Channels Open is preparing for this possibility. We need to take opportunities now to stay close to Europe in readiness for when politics turns and opinions change, and a reoriented Britain chooses, consciously and deliberately, to reengage in building a common European future.