Britain once ruled the waves, but, for the moment, its dominion is confined to the airwaves. With Theresa May’s tweaked deal ruled out for a second time on Tuesday, and a no-deal exit from the EU on 29th March voted down on Wednesday, the UK is now stuck in a holding pattern. Most likely this will involve a three month or so extension of Article 50.
And so this monumental act of national self-harm rolls on in its infuriating absurdity: yet more uncertainty for business, continued stress for EU citizens in the UK and Brits in the EU, yet more time for people around the world to scratch their heads in wonder at what Britain, previously a byword for caution and good governance, has done to itself.
There is no objective way to ‘score’ Brexit. Any argument on Brexit, mine included, is riven with all sorts of ideological slants and confirmation biases.
But, for the moment, let’s set aside the discussion about Brexit’s impact on political discourse (terrible), economic cost (short-term, certainly bad; long-term, the jury is out), security implications (a high degree of cooperation is likely to continue: it’s too important not to), and the capacity of Brits to live and work easily across Europe (the lost opportunities are incalculable).
I want to focus instead on what Brexit means for the UK’s position in the world. How does Brexit affect Britain’s ability to effect change, project soft power and influence the world community: in essence, to persuade people to do things that are good for Britain?
Sure, if and when Brexit goes through, Britain will have more of a voice in world affairs. No longer will diplomats need defer to EU speaking points at international meetings. Britain will be able to determine its own foreign policy more rapidly, without having to worry about political ripples within the EU.
So, it will have a clearer voice. But that voice will whisper from a much weaker position. This is for four reasons.
First, whatever Nigel Farage may tell you, Brexit takes Britain from rule maker to rule taker. Instead of being a leading voice in a market of more than 500 million, Britain after Brexit – with a market of just 66 million – will be a much tougher sell for British negotiators.
This is only going to slide further: Britain is now the world’s fifth largest economy, but the country is fast being eclipsed by emerging economies – Britain is projected to fall to 10th in the world by 2030. Post-Brexit Britain will need to sign trade deals, and fast. Even Trump’s Art of the Deal will tell you that a weak negotiating position and time pressure aren’t good starting points: chlorinated chicken and GMO food? Sure! Many more visas as conditions for a trade deal? Ok!
Second, if your influence is judged by your friends, then Brexit is sure losing Britain a lot of them. A large part of the ‘special relationship’ that politicians from the UK and the US have long liked to harp on about is reliant on the UK being a bridge between Europe and the US. That bridge is smouldering now.
Third, Brexit is sapping one of Britain’s most important but least tangible assets: its soft power. The lies that were told during the referendum campaign, as well as the inability of Parliament to develop a plan for Brexit, have tarnished the reputation of the Westminster system more than we will ever know. Meanwhile, the proposals from some within the Conservative Party to slash foreign aid and roll the Department for International Development back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would strike a blow to the UK’s reputation as a good global citizen.
Finally, with Britain fading as an economic power and politically cut off from the European Union, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council is looking more than ever like the anachronistic victors’ peace that it is. Britain’s seat isn’t predicated on its relationship to the EU. However, Britain will no longer be able to join France in claiming to represent, in some way, a powerful coalition of interests. It’s safe to predict that the seat will be first to go in any reform of the Security Council, and don’t count on the US or Russia rushing to Britain’s defence when that moment comes.
Ultimately – and this is the central irony of Brexit – in trying to return to a halcyon view of a past, mythically glorious Britain, Brexiteers are hastening the end of Britain as a global power.
This is the also the core tragedy of Brexit. At a time when the world needs collective action more than ever – to deal with climate change, to stem nuclear proliferation, to address international terrorism, to reverse the crashing ecosystem of the planet – Britain is turning its back on international cooperation. Fool Britannia indeed.