LONDON – It is easy to forget that defense and security are not the same thing. Defense is what countries must resort to when their security breaks down. And during peacetime, countries spend money on defense precisely because they fear for their security.
Since 2014, the security environment for Britain and the European Union has deteriorated sharply. In March of that year, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. It was the first time since World War II that a major European power sought to redraw its own borders by force of arms.
In 1994, Russia agreed to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s handover of the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union. But Russia didn’t stop with Crimea; since then, it has waged a low-intensity unconventional war against Ukraine in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
And Ukraine is not alone. Russia has also sent ships and warplanes to threaten the coasts of other Western countries, abducted an Estonian intelligence officer on NATO territory, and sustained an ongoing military buildup in Eastern Europe, the Arctic and elsewhere.
Despite these deteriorating security conditions, a slim majority of Britons voted in June 2016 to withdraw from the EU — a decision that could fatally undermine the United Kingdom’s relationship with its European NATO partners. Making matters worse, in November of 2016, Donald Trump, who has long expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, was elected president of the United States.
Although Trump expressed disdain for NATO during the 2016 campaign, he appears to have been reined in by the many generals he has installed in top positions. Still, he could always change his mind. The Republican Party is in the throes of a deep internal schism that could end with the victory of its populist wing, led by Trump’s nationalist, anti-EU Svengali, Stephen Bannon.
If Bannon does manage to transform the Republican Party in accordance with his nationalist vision, and if the Republicans retain or regain power in the future, U.S. security commitments to Europe will no longer be reliable. Continued Russian attacks on Western political systems, or even an outright military attack in Europe, could go unanswered by the U.S.
Without firm U.S. support, a politically divided EU would be increasingly vulnerable to Russian political domination. At the same time, a politically cohesive EU would be a bulwark of stability stretching from the English Channel to Ukraine’s Dnieper River. In the absence of U.S. leadership, a stable and secure EU could thus become the most important pillar of the U.K.’s post-Brexit security strategy.
But the stability of the EU is far from guaranteed, because a smooth and painless Brexit may tempt other member states to also quit the bloc. Some argue that this outcome is unlikely, because it is impossible, in practice, for eurozone countries to leave. If a eurozone country even suggested that it might withdraw from the euro and the EU, the resulting capital flight would devastate its economy. According to this view, the fact that two-thirds of EU member states belong to the euro is enough to prevent the EU from unraveling.
If only that were so. In reality, a number of important EU members remain outside the euro, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Romania and Sweden. Moreover, under favorable circumstances, eurozone countries with current-account surpluses — such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Austria — could probably leave the euro without suffering catastrophic harm. And lest we forget, Western electorates have demonstrated a unique capacity for self-harm. Consider not just Brexit and the election of Trump, but also Catalan separatists’ game of economic Russian roulette over the past month and a half.
As things stand, the U.K. still seems to be politically incapable of abandoning Brexit altogether, even though that would be the best course of action for all involved. But between the options of a “soft” and “hard” Brexit — in which Britain would leave the EU single market and customs union — the latter may have at least one advantage. Namely, it would not further undermine European stability, which also happens to be Britain’s biggest security asset.
To be sure, a hard Brexit would come at a high economic cost for the U.K. Industrial supply chains would be disrupted, the construction industry would be denuded of its EU workers, the City of London would lose international importance, the pound would continue depreciating, and the public sector — particularly the National Health Service — would be stretched thin. The EU, too, would incur costs, albeit much smaller as a share of its overall economy.
Despite the costs, a hard Brexit would, at a minimum, discourage other EU members from following the U.K.’s lead, thereby shoring up European stability and helping Britain maintain its national security, which may be the most important consideration in the long run. Such an outcome would be ironic, to say the least. But even more ironic is the fact that those pushing for it are the very Brexiteers who would like to see the EU fail. They are convinced that their vision of a buccaneering, global Britain can be achieved only with a clean break from Europe. They might soon find out if they’re right.
Jacek Rostowski was Poland’s minister of finance and deputy prime minister from 2007 to 2013. ©Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org
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