Mention the costs and benefits of UK membership of the EU, and thoughts immediately turn to an economic calculation. But there is also another cost-benefit calculation, namely the geopolitical impact of any future Brexit on the UK’s power and influence in the world.
For over 40 years, the grand strategy has been to exploit the leverage provided by EU membership (initially the Common Market) to enable a mid-ranking power to punch above its weight in the world. The underlying assumption was that, in the wake of the retreat from Empire and relative economic decline, Britain could use EU membership to arrest waning geopolitical influence. I profoundly disagree with the pessimistic worldview underpinning this strategy, but that it was and is the strategy there can be little doubt. The Foreign Office view has been that we have more geopolitical influence in than out the EU.
But those of us who disagree with this assessment need to articulate what the grand strategy would be in the wake of a future Brexit.
When it looks at alternative institutional options, the Foreign Office will easily find shortcomings in the European Economic Area (EEA) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) models, which are essentially economic and not grand strategy. The Norwegian model (EEA membership) would subject the UK to regulation without representation, and is surely unworkable in the wake of a referendum fought over interference from Brussels. The Swiss model (EFTA membership with bi-lateral treaties with the EU) is also problematic and may not even get approval from existing members. I would argue that the EEA option is politically impossible, and the EFTA option is geopolitically unacceptable for a country the size of the UK. But if these models aren’t viable, there still needs to be an answer to the charge that Brexit would lead to un-splendid isolation.
One option is the so-called Anglosphere. The Anglosphere focuses on those countries which share the English language, common law, individualism, democracy, the rule of law and a strong civil society. The historian Robert Conquest has argued that democracy is an Anglo-Saxon invention and that its roots in Europe are much weaker. Other historians, such as Andrew Roberts, have argued that the past century is largely a story of English-speaking nations’ fight against tyranny, from Prussian expansionism and Nazism, to Soviet Communism and Islamofascism. The essence of the Anglosphere is not an English speaking super state (that would be utterly absurd), but instead cooperation wherever there is an alignment of national interests based on shared culture and values.
In an increasingly networked world, with growth in the use of the English language, the Anglosphere model is a tantalising option. Or is it? American foreign policy has undergone a tilt towards Asia, and the growth in the significance of the Hispanic vote in the US over the coming decades suggests US foreign policy will tilt south. So yes, there are significant challenges to making the Anglosphere geopolitical model a reality. But when built on long standing foundations (e.g. the existing sharing of intelligence between the so-called Five Eyes – US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), there is real potential.
The geopolitical and economic consequences of Brexit will hinge on what both the UK and the EU do the morning after. The Anglosphere could provide part of the grand strategic answer. Next week I’ll examine the radical solutions to the economic challenges raised by Brexit.