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by Robert Cox

Amid the toil and trouble of their own politics Americans might have a moment to note the self-flagellation of their closest European ally. There’s more to come – and the US is going to be drawn into it, whether it likes it or not. Coronavirus has now temporarily obscured the Brexit issue while arguably inflicting upon the European Union the greatest strains since its creation. A stricken EU helps nobody.

Any idea of an end to “Brexit, the most pointless, masochistic ambition in our country’s history”, to quote The Guardian, died on January 31st when Britain formally left the European Union (EU). The Tories’ pre-Christmas election victory drove the last nail into the coffin. A thin victory, nonetheless. It was equally a defeat for the opposition Labour Party led by the hapless left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn. Was this already an omen for a certain Bernie Sanders?

The Tories romped back to power with a majority of 80 – based on 29% of the electorate. A faulty electoral system distorts British politics, just as it does in the US. None of which stopped Prime Minister Boris Johnson from proclaiming in rhetoric borrowed from Donald Trump – “We can now move forward as one country – with a government focused on delivering better public services, greater opportunity and unleashing the potential of every corner of our brilliant United Kingdom.” Which doesn’t, of course, answer the awkward question of: what constraints of EU membership, stopped you earlier? German Chancellor Merkel reminded us of reality when she told the Financial Times in mid-January: “I see the European Union as our life insurance…. Germany is far too small to exert geopolitical influence on its own.”

Can Britain really “now move forward” from Brexit? The short answer is – nope. In the last week of February, the battle lines of the outstanding business of negotiating the future EU-UK relation were brutally drawn. The EU has no intention of letting Britain float away into a neo-liberal wonderland while keeping intact EU single market trade privileges. There must be a “level playing field” says Brussels. Free trade concessions must be matched by Britain’s continued respect for EU rules on social standards, environmental norms, state aids and competition behaviour. In the prevailing jargon, “alignment” with the EU’s regulatory matrix.

London flatly rejects these conditions. Wall Street meanwhile will doubtless watch another impending drama. The British want their City of London to have complete freedom to supply services to European financial markets – “open-ended” and “permanent equivalence” with Member States. No, says Brussels – it will be “conditional.” Brussels after all has squeezed the non-compliant Swiss out of the EU financial market. Irish Americans may note that still to be resolved are the mechanics of Irish free trade – across the Irish sea and within the island of Ireland. The complicated system for Northern Ireland involves the region effectively staying in the EU single market but in the UK customs zone – an unworkable mess. Lurking in the shadows is the nasty question of whether hard-won peace can prevail between the two parts of the divided isle of Ireland.

Central to the UK-EU challenge is the period of transition, the timescale for completing negotiations. Formally it expires at the end of 2020. London rejects any extension of the deadline. Few observers see how a comprehensive deal can be reached in that time. Which implies Britain accepting the scenario of a brutal and damaging Brexit in late December. The EU Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen summed things up thus: “The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership has to be.” One must forgive the bewilderment of the long-suffering British public. Grandstanding or phoney war, making the opponent look like an oppressor, is inherent in negotiation tactics – provided it remains tactical.

Seeking friends

Constantly interfering with the politics of Britain’s final withdrawal from the EU is the chimera of substantial trade deals with third parties. “Singapore-on-Thames” the cynics call it. London’s prime target is a big trade deal with the United States. London takes its cue from the encouragement of Trump and acolytes quoted as being “exited” about such a deal. But this too is running into trouble. Whitehall happily sings from the old British hymn-sheet of the transatlantic “special relationship”. Some “continental” observers surmise (fear?) that London is preparing a stronger, cosy relationship with Washington. That scenario is coming under pressure. President Trump reportedly greeted with “apoplexy”. Britain’s engagement with China’s Huawei for 5G communications technology. Many Brits fear that Americans want to grab the more profitable slices of Britain’s cherished National Health Service (NHS). Others fear American farmers seeking to prise open Britain’s market for environmentally questionable products such as chicken washed in chlorine, or hormone-treated beef. João Vale de Almeida, a previous European Commission ambassador to Washington, has just become the first EU envoy to London. He recalls how the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) became highly politicised because of misinformation and manipulation of facts by its critics.

Nor does Trump like London’s proposed digital services tax. He also growls about London’s persistent support of the Iran nuclear deal. Britain too was unhappy about the wisdom of murdering Iran’s Pasdaran leader, Soleimani. On another front, American pressure on defence procurement is targeting the British Leonardo firm’s bid to supply South Korea’s helicopter fleet.

Richard Goldberg, until recently a member of the National Security Council, questions British loyalty to Washington on big foreign policy issues. ”What are you going to do [after Brexit] as you come to Washington to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States?” Senator Tom Cotton (Republican, Arkansas), tweeted: “This decision (Huawei) is deeply disappointing for American supporters of the Special Relationship. I fear London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing.”

Meanwhile back home…

Britain’s domestic political scene is ruffled. The implications of a “hard” Brexit for British domestic politics as the negotiation drags on, will re-emerge once Coronavirus abates. British labour unions may suddenly wake up to realise that this threatens jobs already hard-hit by the Coronavirus lockdown.

Premier Johnson’s incapacitation makes things worse. Already some questioned his readiness to knuckle down to hard work – not Johnson’s strength. The Celtic fringes mutter and grumble. The Scottish Nationalist Party thinks it has the wind of independence in its sails. Perhaps. Scots like the English are politically cloven. London says Westminster has first to decide whether Scotland can have another referendum on independence. It won’t. This isn’t Spain.

In an Irish electoral earthquake, voters have “destroyed the familiar political system in an attempt to make it ordinary” (Financial Times), getting rid of the two great anomalies of Irish politics, the purdah of Sinn Féin and the duopoly of two parties born of the Civil War. Some Northern Irish voters wonder what a possibly more statesmanlike Sinn Féin might offer them. Irish re-unification suddenly seems less like just a republican pipe-dream – albeit distant. Brexit and related job threats have few friends in Ulster.

In England all but three of the 58 seats the Tories gained in December were from Labour. These new boys and girls want to get re-elected. That means more state activism rather than traditional Tory love of less government. British party loyalties are embattled. Dysfunctional housing markets, threatened educational standards, dilapidated infrastructures, urban decline, overstretched defence capacities, all challenge neo-liberal recipes of politics – as they do elsewhere in Europe and in America. English traditional Tories in the south, says The Economist, want to “unshackle Britain and usher in an era of freewheeling globalism” with tax-cuts rather than increased public spending. New northern Tory MPs did not enter parliament to close down northern factories. Coronavirus now changes all this. Britain’s Treasury has opened the financial sluices. Activist government, as elsewhere, is now fashionable again in Britain.

“If, in ten years’ time, British society is more egalitarian, then one can speak of Brexit success” says leading Brexit-analyst, Prof. Anand Menon of King’s College, London. What now matters too is for the EU of 27 to become a demonstrable success story. That alone will keep the younger people on Europe’s side as they grow older, both in the EU and in a post-Brexit Britain, both vulnerable to doubt. For a start the EU must shoulder its share of the burden of not letting the negotiation get bogged down in trade and tariffs. The Commission’s Brexit negotiation mandate already embraces wider issues, including Europe’s future security and defence. Honouring that mandate will not be helped by Europe’s fragmented debate of that issue, and the related ambiguities of its alliance with the United States. [i]

Recovery from Coronavirus has now shot up to the top of Europe’s priority list. Failure of the Brexit negotiation between the EU and the UK will stamp their mutual future for the further worse. It will impinge on US interests too. These interests will not be best served by giving free rein to the instinctive Euro-scepticism of parts of the US political establishment – fuelled by President Trump himself – any more than do the negative outbursts of European leaders, epitomised by France’s politically embattled leader. Failure of the EU-UK negotiation will give cause for rejoicing to those wishing ill on both Europe and America.

Further battered by the Coronavirus storm, an often politically incoherent Europe is ill placed to give lessons to the US about its conduct of affairs. Can, at the risk of chutzpah, Europe proffer some useful advice to Washington? At the risk of naivety here are some ideas.

Make up your minds – do you want an active partnership with Europe? Do you actually want the European Union to survive and prosper? What other sizeable allies do you have? Or do you simply want to drift into isolation? Europe has no such an alternative, as Mikael Barfod points out elsewhere in this issue of American Diplomacy. Recovery from the onslaught of Coronavirus is a world challenge. Falling back on nationalism offers no solutions.

Europe should and could play a more useful role in the Middle East drama which still bubbles on. You should encourage and help it. Europe will be better encouraged to shoulder such responsibility if the US is seen to be working in harmony with it. Two particular US actions would help here: stop encouraging Iran’s hardliners’ destructive behaviour in the Middle East by giving them the pretext of your continued boycott of the nuclear deal; stop supporting Israel’s territorial expansionism.

On defence, the US is widely projected in Europe as obstructing its ambitions, however piecemeal, to develop its own defence and security autonomy. Such autonomy is key to Europe moving towards greater collective responsibility towards such sensitive zones as the Middle East, the frontier zones with Russia, and Sahelian Africa. To all appearances the US wants such European engagement. But that is not the message Europe is getting. Perceived US hostility to European security autonomy gives its European opponents further pretext for blocking it. Washington must drop this ambiguity and send clear messages of support – particularly to recalcitrant Poland, Hungary and the UK.

On the potential disruption threatened by the Brexit process, stop encouraging London’s belief that a generous trade deal with the US will replace its access to European markets, and that the great power aspirations of Johnson’s “brilliant United Kingdom” suit Washington’s agenda. History via 1776 and the Suez Canal disaster tells us that it doesn’t.

Will the Coronavirus disaster, and ensuing need to act collectively for recovery, dampen Britain’s appetite for Brexit, bring it back to a cooperative mood with the European Union and, additionally, help build a joint European initiative for world recovery in partnership with the United States? Common sense dictates that. But can Washington, Brussels and London together summon the necessary imagination and willpower?End.


Robert Cox

Robert Cox, born in London in 1938, read economics, politics, German and Slavonic languages at Cambridge University and the College of Europe in Bruges. After journalism with The Economist, and later in central Africa, Cox joined the European Commission as spokesman, then as a staffer in a Commissioner’s private office, before assignments in development policy and North-South Dialogue negotiations. As Head of the EC Mission in Turkey he experienced the 1980 military coup. Senior policy and management posts followed in EU public affairs remits. Cox served with the EU Monitoring Mission on the outbreak of the civil war in Yugoslavia. In 1992 he became deputy head of the new EC Humanitarian Office (ECHO). He lives in Brussels, painting, traveling, writing and working on contemporary challenges for Europe, notably with the think-tank Friends of Europe. He is married and two daughters and three grandchildren take up further time.


[i] See: “A Minefield of Opportunity. Transatlantic Defence in the Trump era” – Friends of Europe, Brussels, spring 2020,

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