By February next year, Britain may be heading out of the EU, trying to stay in, or lost somewhere in between. In Munich at that time, defence and security leaders from across the world will gather for their yearly conference. They are planning a Brexit party, whatever the circumstances. Their intent is not to gloat if Britain is about to exit. It is to ease any British pain.
In a fit of nostalgia, Britain’s defence secretary, whoever that may be at the time, will be asked to open the conference, standing alongside their German counterpart, Ursula von der Leyen. The move will be symbolic, but the message important: that Europe cannot do without Britain’s foreign policy involvement or its defence and security capabilities.
In fact, if it were up to Wolfgang Ischinger, the German diplomat who chairs the Munich Security Conference, the UK once it leaves the EU would still be invited to every single meeting of the bloc, even if it no longer enjoyed the right to vote.
“The ‘strategic’ community thinks Brexit will be a terrible loss, and hopes that someday, it will reverse,” he confides when I meet him in Berlin. British expertise will be missed everywhere, from crisis management to operational foreign policy. No one will miss it more than Germany, the European power most uncomfortable with assuming a lead role on foreign and defence matters.
Since the UK voted in 2016 to leave the EU, the European need to preserve the union and its internal market by confronting the UK with hardline negotiating demands has been overwhelming. Yet that position has masked a sense of mourning over the loss of one of the bloc’s most important members.
In many ways, the EU’s stance in the Brexit talks revealed both the strength and the weakness of the bloc: its focus has been on the act of separation, and the necessity of deterring others from following the UK’s lead, rather than on the strategic implications of alienating Britain.
On its own, the UK is undoubtedly a weaker power. Brexiters’ claims of a return of “global Britain” are a figment of their imagination. Without Britain, however, the EU is also diminished.
Within Europe, foreign policy has often been led by the so-called E3 — the trio of Britain, France and Germany. Some E3 priorities will outlive Brexit, including its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal. Britain’s interests, moreover, will inevitably remain closely aligned to those of its former European partners. But maintaining the same level of co-operation will inevitably meet greater resistance from smaller EU members that have long been suspicious of the E3.
Brexit might have been more manageable in Europe had it been the only harm inflicted on the bloc. But it struck just as US president Donald Trump was hammering the transatlantic alliance and taking aim at Germany. At a Berlin foreign policy conference I recently attended, Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, warned that Europe must avoid being crushed by the unfolding rivalry between the great powers. He called for a coalition that would join the EU with like-minded countries such as Japan and Canada. Yet delegates I spoke to were unconvinced about Europe’s ability to stand on its own. “America was the ceiling under which we conducted foreign policy. Now we need a policy towards America,” one delegate lamented.
There is, to be sure, a flip side to the double blow of Mr Trump and Brexit. American pressure has forced a long-overdue re-evaluation of European dependence on the US, a debate that Germany had sought to avoid. And without the resistance of Britain, the idea of closer European defence integration can be more easily pursued as a long-term project.
France’s president Emmanuel Macron has revived an old debate about a European army, and Germany’s Angela Merkel has chipped in, declaring that the bloc should have a European security council and a quick reaction force. Reality is likely to be less ambitious than the rhetoric. In fact, Ms von der Leyen last week lowered expectations by describing the plan as “an army of Europeans where national parliaments have sovereignty”. Whatever upside Brexit may bring to a necessary EU debate over pooling resources, it will be smaller than the downside.