"All but ready to give up in despair, our opinion-formers wallow in recrimination and blame"
Germany must not expect the UK to pick up the tab for its defence (Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
We British are past masters at talking ourselves into a tight spot. All but ready to give up in despair, our opinion-formers wallow in recrimination and blame. Our impending isolation looks anything but splendid, they tell us; going it alone seems reckless and morale is at rock bottom. We’re finished as a force in the world, according to the great and good: nobody cares what we do or say. “Britain is no longer an important country,” Sir Max Hastings opined on the Today programme recently. For the Economist, Britain is simply “absurd”.
Foreign leaders take us at our own valuation. For the German Chancellor, the British are fair game for Schadenfreude. At Davos Angela Merkel reportedly had trusted journalists in stitches with her imitation of an importunate Theresa May, repeating her pathetic mantra: “Make me an offer.” Even the naturally Anglophile Donald Trump, when asked about Brexit, simply says: “I would have taken a tougher stand on getting out.” The European Union, he reckons, is “not cracked up to what it’s supposed to be”. Despite his mangled syntax, the President has a point. David Cameron found that out the hard way — having cracked the EU up to be the only game in town.
Yet Britain has been in much worse situations before. Indeed, it is only when we have no alternative that we show our true mettle. To abort Brexit now, as siren voices at home and abroad repeatedly urge, really would destroy our credibility. The era of pooling sovereignty and falling into line with European policies is over. Instead, the government need to demonstrate that it is prepared to do whatever is required to make Britain a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.
The Prime Minister should entrust Boris Johnson with setting out a new foreign policy for the post-Brexit era. The Foreign Secretary is itching to leave his mark on history, so he should be encouraged to do so. We don’t need to wait until we have left the EU in order to set out the principles that should govern our conduct in the future and enable us to find our new role in the world.
In 1822, during his last interview with King George IV, the then Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh said: “It is necessary to say goodbye to Europe; you and I alone know it and have saved it.” Four days later he committed suicide. But Castlereagh was right: the British national interest did not require continental alliances, except when the threat from one or other great power became so acute as to demand it. Russia in the 1850s seemed to pose such a threat; hence the Anglo-French alliance in the Crimean War. Germany in the 1900s undoubtedly did pose such a threat; hence the Entente Cordiale and the rapprochement with Russia. It was the same story again between the world wars, with collective security based on the League of Nations. That system having failed to prevent war, the Atlantic Alliance became the cornerstone of Cold War diplomacy, right up to the present.
Now the UK must decide how to respond to the EU’s attempt to rebuild European security architecture. Russia is sabre-rattling again by moving short-range nuclear Iskander missiles to the enclave of Kaliningrad, menacing EU capitals. Nato remains the basis of Western security, but its major beneficiary is not pulling its weight. Boris Johnson should invite the new German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, to London to ask him why Berlin is paying only half of its Nato membership fee. He should make clear to Mr Maas that HMG views with displeasure the stated aim of his government to pursue the goal of a European army, which is likely to dissipate resources that should properly be placed at the disposal of the alliance to which Germany is a signatory. He should explain, politely but firmly, that British interests will in future be global rather than regional. Germany must not expect the UK to pick up the tab for its defence.
The Foreign Secretary should have similarly frank conversations with other allies that have come to take Britain for granted. At the same time, he should explain how a renewed British sovereignty will transform our readiness to project power, in close co-operation with the United States and our other Anglophone allies. Europe should be left in no doubt that the UK, while still committed to Nato, now sees itself once again as primarily a sea power. The deterrence of Russia on land must be primarily the responsibility of the states directly at risk, led by Germany and Poland. The abysmal relationship between Berlin and Warsaw (due to the former’s meddling and the latter’s demand for war reparations) is an obstacle to their ability to discharge that responsibility. Mrs Merkel has refrained from criticising the Polish law that bans any suggestion that Poles took part in the Holocaust. That law is an insult to Jews who died at the hands of Poles.
Last month Mrs May and Mrs Merkel had a belated conversation that touched on security issues. It has so far taken nearly six months to form a German government, which could yet fall apart. British foreign policy has been predicated on the assumption that Germany’s support was crucial to the damage limitation exercise which sums up the Foreign Office attitude to Brexit. Quite apart from the wrong-headedness of that attitude, it is now clear that Berlin will do Britain no favours. A list of sanctions to be used against the UK during the “transition” has emerged from the European Commission — with German fingerprints all over it.
So it is time to stop pretending that the post-Brexit relationship with the EU will change “very modestly”, as Philip Hammond claims. Berlin has made its hostility to Brexit so clear that we must take it seriously. There is a word for what is needed from Boris Johnson in this predicament — a German word, as it happens. That word is Realpolitik.