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Ukraine marks an end to Brexit illusions (FT)

5 March 2022


Financial Times title: Ukraine marks an end to Brexit illusions
FT subtitle: Lofty dreams of a tilt to the Indo-Pacific must give way to the real threat of war in Europe
By: Robert Shrimsley
Date: 2 March 2022

“Just as few military plans survive first contact with the enemy, so few grand diplomatic visions outlast exposure to reality. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing western nations to rethink core assumptions. In the UK, it means the end of Brexit illusions of a new direction for “Global Britain”.

The crisis hammers home the fact that the UK cannot escape its geography. Lofty dreams of reorienting British thinking with an Indo-Pacific tilt will now be subordinated as focus returns squarely to the overwhelming priority, which means recognising that the UK’s own security is inextricably linked with Europe’s.

There were good things in last year’s Integrated Review of foreign and security policy, not least the emphasis on high tech and cyber warfare. But it was predicated on absence of major conflict and conditions which suited an independent midsized power.

It is a mistake to pay undue heed to Johnsonian rhetoric of a reborn maritime power steaming towards fresh alliances in the Indo-Pacific. But while less than a strategy, Global Britain is more than a slogan. Though rational, the tilt is also driven by the need for a post-Brexit economic and diplomatic narrative. Its defence aspects were largely about building US ties and bolstering a trade strategy but it framed a political discourse keen to identify new horizons.

The review was clear in its commitment to European security through Nato and in identifying Russia as the greatest threat. But there was a patent effort to say as little as possible about the EU and Tories are overly keen to find reasons to talk it down. So a Brexit mindset drove diplomatic thinking while banking on the continued weakness of EU security policy (and German conflicts of interest) to shore up the UK’s place in Nato.

There was no need for this approach. While the UK has always championed Nato over the EU, Brexit did not require more distance from the EU on security. But the UK weakened ties, insisting on ad hoc EU meetings rather than formal structures which reinforce relationships. Meanwhile, efforts to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol have alienated friends (including the US) and promoted the view of the UK as an unreliable ally.

In the weeks before the invasion, the UK’s defence organisations did well. US and UK intelligence were shown to have made the right calls. Britain was early in supplying weapons and military training to Ukraine and troops to the Baltic states. The UK also put significant diplomatic effort into eastern Europe. Other areas have been less satisfactory. The first sanctions response from the UK was badly underpowered but, like the EU’s, has gained strength. Britain’s refugee package has not been a testament to soft power leadership.

But the past week has challenged the UK’s strategic assumptions and will force Johnson’s government to recalibrate in three areas especially.

First, there are too many priorities chasing too little cash. The Indo-Pacific tilt, the focus on cyber, space defence and more are all valid but policy will now be refocused towards the European threat. Money on cyber warfare must be maintained; other global missions may need to wait.

Second, defence strategy must be altered and spending increased. Investment was raised by £16.5bn over four years. While the Navy gained, there were sharp cuts to the army. Troop numbers will fall; the 700 Warrior fighting vehicles are being phased out, while only two-thirds of the aged Challenger 2 tanks will be upgraded. The troubled Ajax fighting vehicle may never be fit for service. Last year Johnson stated that “the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European land mass are over.” There were better things to invest in. Some of those assumptions will have to be revisited. As one security expert notes: “You can’t deter Russia with vehicles intended for Afghanistan.”

Third, the UK is going to need to find new forums beyond Nato for agreeing European security and resilience concerns with EU members. The emergence over time of a newly militarily-equipped Germany as a major security power alongside France will change the calculations and could see Britain wielding less influence in Nato, if it cannot find a better way to work with the EU. This is even more true given the evidence of an EU ready to use its economic power for security ends. This is now a diplomatic imperative for the UK — and it also means repairing relations with France. Since the old E3 of France, Germany and the UK would be an E2+1, Britain might be better served by a quad which also includes a US, already working closely with Berlin and Paris.

It may be that EU unity of purpose subsides over time but this feels like a serious shift, and one which may erode the UK’s security heft. And an outlook which willed weakness on the EU to maintain UK primacy in Nato was never a far-sighted policy. Britain now needs a solid framework that seeks to work with rather than circumvent the EU on security. Otherwise the UK risks becoming a supporting actor in its own backyard and a bit-part player everywhere else.

Above these concerns is the greater moral priority for a democratic Europe to continue to stand effectively together against fascist aggression.

There was and is no need for Brexit to distance the UK from the EU on defence. This is not the last challenge. The rhetoric of Global Britain always outpaced the reality. But reality has now bitten and it is time for an end to illusions.”



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