Would Brexit Play Into Putin’s Hands?

If Britain leaves the EU, the West will be weaker. Geopolitical reality makes the case for staying engaged compelling even for Eurosceptics

Alexander Woolfson

Whatever the outcome of the June referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, history will almost certainly record that both of the woefully hurried campaigns failed properly to prepare voters. This intellectual vacuum is not surprising. It is almost impossible to impose hard logic on the question. Both the Leave and Remain campaigns face the same problem: neither of them really know what the future they are trying to sell will look like. A vote to leave would simply be the starting point for negotiating how Britain, free of its EU shackles, would then live alongside Europe in economic, political and security terms. The difficulty for the Prime Minister and the Remain campaign is that the EU’s inability to provide meaningful reform in the face of multiple existential threats means that they cannot point to a positive programme of reform. Instead, their campaign is based on fear of the unknown. As a result, the debate has so far failed to engage with the more fundamental security consequences of Brexit.

Despite this the critical questions of European security have rarely been in greater need of attention. In announcing his withdrawal from Syria, Putin has once again out-manoeuvred the West. Much as with Ukraine and the start of the Syrian campaign, Western governments appear not to have received warnings from their intelligence agencies. This in itself is cause for concern. Far worse, the reality is that Russia will not entirely withdraw. As in Ukraine, Putin has been allowed to create a frozen conflict. This time it has occurred in the midst of a Western military operation. No one should be surprised by this repetition of Russian strategy, creating chaos in order to change facts on the ground in support of its strategic interests. Rather than hastening peace this will probably lead to the balkanisation of Syria. Europe and America have set a poor precedent for protecting vulnerable nation states in the region. In contrast, Russia sends a message of triumph to other despotic allies.

The West remains mired in its conflict with IS, Russia having contributed nothing but countless civilian deaths. This shows how fragile international security has become under Obama’s stewardship. Last month he gave an unprecedented insight into his worldview in a long interview with the Atlantic magazine. The main force of his comments underscores America’s retreat from global hegemony. As America refocuses on Asia, Obama has sought to create regional balances of power. This is as true in Europe as in the Middle East where Iran is now set against Saudi Arabia. Obama railed against America’s allies as “free riders” on American security. Particular scorn was directed at David Cameron for the Libya debacle. Obama clearly sees the world in terms of regional spheres of influence. Nowhere is this clearer than his suggestion that in Ukraine was always going to matter more to Russia than to Europe. With one comment he ended the post-Cold War vision of Europe, accepting geographic and normative limits dictated by Putin. Moldova can now be added to the list of post-Soviet states that have had their vulnerability to Russian invasion explicitly spelt out by Obama. While Nato still provides protection from direct invasion, the Atlanticist security blanket which enabled the EU to discuss membership with Ukraine two years ago can no longer be taken for granted.

From monetary union to mismanaged expansion and the migrant crisis, the list of EU failures is hard to dispute. It is equally hard to dispute the aims of the Leave campaign: the return of sovereignty, freedom from ever-tightening bureaucracy and a desire to unleash constrained economic potential. Indeed, there are a number of various credible economic scenarios post-exit in which Britain co-exists with the EU. Norway has already taken one such route.

It is less easy to imagine an equivalent security structure that is fit for purpose. Leaving the EU would make Britain complicit in the creation of a security disaster on her doorstep that sooner or later she will be forced to help clean up. The real security concern is not the immediate effect on Britain’s defence arrangements within Nato but the implications of Britain’s exit for European cohesion, militarily, geographically and normatively. The implications of Britain leaving are likely to be far less serious for Britain than they are for the EU, at least in the short to medium term. It may be difficult to predict what post-Brexit Britain would look like. It is far easier to predict Europe’s future deterioration if existing political and economic problems are exacerbated by the loss of the fifth-largest economy in the world and the largest military budget in Europe. The post-war thinker Hans Morgenthau suggested that we can mismanage a variety of political, military and moral issues, but if we mismanage all of them, crisis is virtually inevitable. This isn’t just scaremongering. Michael Gove, the intellectual force behind the Leave campaign, acknowledges the multiple problems Europe faces. The far-Right parties are at their strongest across Europe since the 1930s and Europe has become a “sinkhole of innovation”, in Gove’s words. What goes unmentioned in debate is that those in the most difficult position are Eurosceptics who find themselves forced by geopolitical realities arguing to remain within the EU.

The foundational European project of maintaining continental peace by keeping nationalism in check is in poor health. To the east, Poland and Hungary, once considered the vanguard of the inexorable spread of European values after the Cold War, are in a slide towards illiberalism. Slovakian neo-fascists have just received 8 per cent of the vote. To the south, Greece has been allowed to become the combustible sick man of Europe, the flashpoint where economic stagnation meets Europe’s metastasising migrant crisis. Under sufficient pressure, the real limits of European integration in the face of national self-interest have become readily apparent. “Ever closer union” is now a worrying distraction from the main challenges shared by European states, a tired joke from the 1990s rather than a credible threat from a supranational tyrant.

Europe’s direction of travel towards disunion makes the timing of the referendum perverse. It is almost a year since the much-vaunted Eurosceptic challenge from UKIP failed to make a decisive impact at the general election. Domestically, Labour’s complete disengagement from campaigning is delivering Jeremy Corbyn’s maladroit leadership a political victory, despite the tension between his own Euroscepticism and his party’s pro-European stance. 

Short of concrete facts about the future, both campaigns have a nostalgic feel to them. A time traveller might be forgiven for thinking he had arrived in the early 1990s when the Charter of Paris for a New Europe marked the end of the Cold War by attempting to enshrine George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order”. In retrospect, Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free” marked the height of the EU’s power. It was historical hubris that allowed Brussels to overshoot the notion of “whole and free” with the concept of “ever closer union”. However, that conflation has not been a serious threat since the Maastricht Treaty. Indeed, by rehashing the arguments of yesteryear both sides of the Brexit campaign are arguing about a world that no longer exists.

If anything, we need to go further back in time for useful historical analogies for today’s Europe. In Britain we see the march of the EU as anathema to sovereignty and liberty. The opposite was true for much of the continent and remains true particularly in the former Soviet sphere of influence. We seem to have forgotten the dark days of the Cold War when much of Europe found itself enslaved to totalitarian regimes on both the Left and the Right. Greece and Portugal’s experience of modern democracy is not that much older than Poland and East Germany’s. Britain’s own union with Europe is relatively young and as a result we tend to forget that an extended period of peace across the continent is an historical aberration, not the norm. This reminder is salutary, first because we seem to take the peace that European security provides for granted, and second because it is a reminder of the shared values for which the Cold War was fought.

The Brexit campaign is significant for being argued in economic terms while failing to deal with important security considerations. Security cannot be reduced to a question of whether Britain’s position in Nato will be affected; nor is it simply a question of geographic defence. Instead, it is about recognising and defending shared values. Even a cursory reading of the prolific propaganda machines of both Islamic State and Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia reveal that it is the values of the West that are their primary target. Security is not just about the detail of defence alliances but about a clear vision of what is being defended — the substantive issue of the culture at stake.

The irony is that the inability to recognise the historically contingent nature of these values drives many of the challenges that Europe faces. Values matter a great deal in the debate over Brexit and indeed in the more pressing question of Europe’s future. Blinded by its internal project in the early 1990s and exacerbated by America’s shift of focus after the Cold War, the EU failed to grasp how what it saw as its benevolent power could be viewed as a threat both internally and externally. The claim to normative superiority undermined the EU’s willingness to engage with individual states as sovereign equals. This is what drives the justified anger of the Leave campaign and has prevented real reform of the EU from within.

Britain is not part of either the eurozone or Schengen but is not immune to the failure of either. More importantly, whether she chooses to stay or to leave the EU, her security concerns will continue to be inextricably linked to the fate of continental Europe. This is not a trend that can be reversed by Brexit, nor will it be solved by the deal negotiated by David Cameron. This is partly a question of geography but it is also about shared values. These values partly reside in the supranational institutions designed to preserve post-war peace — Nato and the EU. This moment is disturbing because the West, not just the EU, faces an interlinked threat. Having taken the pluralistic, democratic values it saw as universal for granted, suddenly these very values are being attacked simultaneously from within and without. The very core of both Russian and IS hybrid warfare is a commitment to attack the values at the heart of Western institutions. Russia has developed an alternative ideology of “sovereign democracy”. Broadly shared by a range of authoritarian regimes, it is built upon executive power, populist mobilisation and opposition to foreign influence. Both Putin and IS have been notably successful in their use of propaganda. Putin’s propagandist-in-chief, Vladislav Surkov, has tapped into popular political discontent in Europe and offers an alternative vision of modernisation. It is hard to see how Britain could meaningfully defend Western values while heading for the exit, rather than reforming the EU from within.

Part of the problem lies with the myth of Britain’s “splendid isolation” under Lord Salisbury in the later part of the 19th century. However, its ending was far from “splendid” nor did it ever represent true isolation. Geographically, Britain could never be fully isolated and nor was it ever in her interests to be so. Instead, she pursued an ad-hoc system of balancing the continental powers until that delicate balancing act ended in the carnage of the First World War. This does serve as a useful way of thinking about Britain’s security dilemma after a potential Brexit. Globally, great power politics seems to be at a historic low point, with weaker states acting in defiance of even regional powers. Russia’s actions from Ukraine to Syria are without doubt taken from a position of weakness and that places her European neighbours in a lose-lose situation. Success in Syria and Ukraine would reinforce the wrong lessons about the rewards of foreign military action for Putin; while failure in either conflict would spur Moscow towards further nationalist-inspired adventures. For a degrading kleptocracy such as Putin’s, changing course is not an option. The more he is thwarted, the less predictable his actions will become if he is to maintain domestic popularity. The trend from Paris to Moscow is towards economic stagnation with unpredictable upswings in populism and illiberal politics. Any move that contributes towards instability and a fragmented balance of power among weakened European states cannot make strategic sense for anyone but Putin. Staying in Europe to prevent its disintegration and to steer its direction of travel is hardly the most alluring of arguments but it is prudent.  

The Leave campaign dismiss all of this as fear-mongering but in reality all of these problems will remain whether Britain is in or out of the EU. All that will change is Britain’s ability to influence events. In the context of Nato’s waning importance for either America or Europe, we cannot take the post-war security architecture for granted. All of the candidates for the presidency, even the formerly hawkish Hillary Clinton, are notable for reflecting popular sentiment in the move to isolationism. That does not bode well for supporters of an Atlanticist model of European defence.

Brexit would certainly weaken the UK’s ability to keep European defence transatlantic in nature, losing influence with both sides of the Atlantic partnership simultaneously. The exit of Britain as the EU’s biggest military power would push the remaining members towards a European defence force. Britain would lose the ability to ensure that EU defence policy was developed in a way that strengthened rather than duplicated Nato. This would diminish our value to the Americans. Britain would soon become a minor player in Nato politics.

This too plays into Putin’s hands. In the UK we do not place enough emphasis on the interrelation between Germany’s political role in the EU and its strategic role in Nato. Putin, a better student of history, is well aware of Germany’s strategic importance. He has not forgotten that anchoring Germany in Western institutions should not be taken for granted. The Ukraine crisis is a microcosm of how a failure to do this might play out in the future. Since 1945, Germany’s political tradition of cleaving to the West has given Nato and the EU a consistent continental presence. Putin is trying to return Germany to the role it played in an earlier era — as a balancing power between East and West. This change in how Germany perceives its role is already evident in the split in the Western response to Ukraine. Germany and France’s decision to take the middle ground between the US and Russia is a significant factor in the failure to resolve the crisis. The strategic outcome, if such a split were to become permanent, cannot be underestimated. Brexit matters in this sense because Britain has historically served as a cohesive political link between the US and Europe. At a moment of European political instability this function is more important than ever. It cannot be pursued passively simply by remaining part of Nato. The cost of British independence might well be a combination of European insularity and instability. Neither makes for a desirable backyard. Outside the EU, Britain would probably return to an ad hoc 19th-century balancing act each time a crisis arose, party to some negotiations but not others — a terrible basis for sustained influence.

No one is more aware of these changes and potential compromises than Vladimir Putin. It is a year since Russia halted its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, two years since it invaded Ukraine and less than a year since it launched its first overseas military operation since the Cold War, in Syria. Russia is in a state of decay but has nonetheless managed to reshape its military doctrine to exploit Europe’s own weaknesses. It is Putin who has successfully defined the limits of Europe “whole and free”, not the EU. It is Europe’s weakness, not Russia’s, that should make us take note.

Yet European political and military leaders persist with beliefs held just before the First World War: that trade and progress have made the risk of war obsolete and that technological superiority would make a war with a lesser power, such as Russia, “short and sharp”. This ignores the relative decline of the forces of democracy and economic prosperity in Europe and the relative rise of illiberal powers over the past ten years.

During the coming months the implications of Brexit for the UK will be endlessly discussed, but a more important question is what Brexit would mean for Europe. The European Council on Foreign Relations recently gave its stark assessment. As the EU lurches from crisis to crisis it has become “in hock to authoritarian regimes” to solve them, be it Russia in Syria or Turkey to slow the flow of refugees. Britain cannot allow Europe to outsource or step back from international engagement. As the UK’s latest strategic defence and security review made clear, its foreign policy goals are becoming greatly circumscribed beyond the pursuit of trade. Even if that were a sensible strategy, it would still depend upon the preservation of the rule-based international system we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. The danger is that Britain continues to believe in the inviolability of our values that has led to today’s imperfect EU. The world order the West enjoyed for so long can no longer be taken for granted. Is the lost sovereignty we seek to repatriate from the EU a compelling enough reason to forfeit our participation in the defence of Europe and our shared values? 

The EU’s migrant repatriation deal with Turkey shows exactly why Britain needs to remain within the EU. While Ankara’s strategic importance to Nato and the EU increases, it looks less and less like a credible future member of the EU. Nonetheless this type of compromise deal is likely to become an increasing feature of European security. The idea that such a deal could in the future be brokered without our involvement or that we could plausibly leave continental Europe to deal with the crisis alone constitutes a form of magical thinking. Turkey illustrates the indivisibility of politics and strategy in the challenges threatening to engulf Europe. Britain would be foolish to lose the ability to engage on both fronts simultaneously. It is in Britain’s interest as much as continental Europe’s to hold Turkey back from the combined forces of illiberal democracy, Islamic extremism and the ratcheting-up of tension with Russia. A delicate balancing act is required to do this while addressing Europe’s migrant crisis. Even Merkel’s Germany appears to be unravelling.

The agreement is designed to bring the human tragedy and combustible politics of irregular migration to an end. It demonstrates that Europe has taken on board the principle that undifferentiated migration cannot be allowed to continue without political consequences. Hopefully it will mark the start of further hard-headed decision-making in Europe. It will doubtless require considerable further negotiation between member states in order to accommodate legitimate refugees. As Norway and Switzerland know all too well, that burden is less easy to dodge, even outside the EU. Clearly the EU still sees the solution to the refugee crisis as coming from within its own borders rather than the more obvious but unpalatable answer that coherent intervention in Syria and Libya would have prevented the crisis in the first place. In this catastrophic folly, Britain remains equally culpable and must be prepared to share in solving the problem. A sudden exit from the EU will not insulate Britain from past foreign policy errors nor from an influx of migrants. It will simply bring the European border closer to our shores just as the continent risks a descent into chaos. Long-term solutions to the migrant crisis and the very real threats to European security cannot be taken from the outside. It is in Britain’s interests to remain a robust voice in the choices that the EU makes over the next ten years. Both British and European security depend on it.

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