The EU has been the UK’s main geopolitical partnership for the past 47 years. When we finally get around to it, Brexit will bring that to an end. But what new geopolitical partnerships should we seek post-Brexit?
Many believe a new partnership with the US is the obvious option. I don’t.
Boris Johnson provided a recent example of this idea at a leadership hustings event a few days ago. He was asked, “How will you develop our post-Brexit relationships with Canada, Australia and New Zealand? What specific initiatives will you pursue? And how will you promote them to the British public as an advantage of Brexit?”
After a classically Boris rambling beginning, he suddenly started talking about the US – a country specifically excluded from the question – referring to “the closeness of our relationships with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.” Boris’ allies tell us that he sees the US and President Trump as a “lifeboat” to “rescue and deliver Brexit”.
Perhaps this attitude reflects Boris’ roots, having been born in the US – the first UK Prime Minister not born in the UK since Arthur Bonar Law and only the second ever since 1801. But whatever the rationale, it’s a mistake.
The central reason the UK is leaving the EU is to avoid being dominated by the Single European State that is being created as the Eurozone draws closer together. Whereas for much of the first 40 years of its membership of the EEC and EU, the UK was one among equals – countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland that were of a similar scale to us – with increasing political integration in the Eurozone, the relationship would have become highly asymmetric, as we were dominated by a much larger and powerful partner.
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Exactly the same problem would apply in a geopolitical partnership with the US. America is simply much, much bigger than us. Such a partnership would be a matter of being told what to do and liking it.
Perhaps some people imagine that we’d prefer to be dominated by the US to being dominated by the EU. I don’t see that myself. I’m not convinced that the US is that much more politically or culturally similar to us than the EU. There are many dimensions in which EU countries are much more like the UK than the US – two obvious examples being our attitudes to capital punishment (we’re against; the US is in favour) and immigration (Europeans want it controlled, at least within Europe; the US is more inclined towards open borders).
We should seek new geopolitical partnerships post-Brexit, but not with countries or blocs so large and powerful that they will not be able to avoid dominating us. Our new partners need to be countries on a similar scale to us, with similar values – countries like Canada and Australia, as Boris’ questioner proposed, not the US.
We should of course seek a trade deal with the US, just as we should seek trade deals with Japan, the EU and China. But each of these four trade deals should be understood purely commercially. We do not assume that doing a trade deal with Japan or with China requires a new geopolitical partnership, and we should not assume that is required for deals with the US or EU either.
The geopolitical partnership that we should seek with Canada and Australia (and New Zealand, making CANZUK, since NZ comes along with Australia) should go much broader and deeper than mere trade deals. It should include agreements on migration and security. It should aim to coordinate policy on global regulatory issues such as climate change policy, banking regulation and the regulation of the internet. It should include aspirations to work together on issues such as a joint space agency.
With similar-sized partners with similar value we should be able to achieve much more than we can working separately.
Indeed, a key aspect for all of the CANZUK countries is that by ourselves we risk domination by larger regional partners – the US of Canada, the Eurozone of the UK, China of Australia. But through collaboration we can be these larger players’ peers (albeit not, for now, equals) instead.
We should be friends with the US. But just as we should not need to be partners with the EU to be friends with it, the same applies to the US. Let’s not leave one asymmetric relationship only to jump, on the rebound, into another.
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