You would have to have lived in a cave for the best part of the last decade not to have been aware of Brexit.
The subject has consumed British politics ever since, then Prime Minister, David Cameron’s pledge of an In/Out referendum seven years ago. It has impacted every election since 2010 – most dramatically the European elections of 2014 and 2019, both won spectacularly by Nigel Farage’s anti-European insurgents. It has destroyed two prime ministers, Cameron and Theresa May. And it has catapulted the maverick Conservative Boris Johnson to a position of enormous power.
Some 17.4 million Brits voted to Leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum – more than have ever voted for any party or any proposition in the nation’s history. There followed three years of organised sabotage masquerading as parliamentary procedure before Johnson won a convincing election victory under the slogan “Get Brexit Done”.
And so, we can safely assume, Brexit will be done at the end of this week when Britain formally leaves the EU. Much detail, notably a trade deal and an agreement on the future relationship between Britain and the EU, remains undone, but the path is set. After nearly 50 years, Britain will no longer be a member of the EU, the first country to quit the 28-(soon to be 27) member bloc.
But what about the rest of the world? What about the great mass of humanity for whom the likes of Anna Soubry, Hilary Benn, Oliver Letwin and Gina Miller are unknown unknowns. What can they expect of the world’s fifth biggest economy, Europe’s premier military power, a nuclear-armed close ally of the United States, a member of the UN Security Council, and a country that in just about living memory was the epicentre of the largest empire the world has ever seen?
The short answer is that no one knows. The debate about the pros and cons of British membership of the EU has been highly parochial. Almost all of the millions of words devoted to the controversy have focused on domestic matters: reclaiming national sovereignty (the right for the British to make the laws that apply to Britain; immigration (the right to control who comes into the country); economy (will we be better off or worse off outside the EU); trade (will we be able to strike free trade deals with major world economies such as the US and China, rather than leave these matters to the grown-ups in Brussels).
Beyond trade, with talk of deals being struck across the world, especially with the former colonies who once made up the Empire and now constitute the 53-member Commonwealth, a third of the world’s population, little has been said about post-Brexit Britain’s future relations with the rest of the world.
Prime Minister Cameron pledged the 2016 referendum believing that he would never have to keep his promise, assuming wrongly that in the 2015 election he would again be forced into coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrat party. He made no plans for a Britain outside the cosy embrace of the EU. His successor May was so ground down by her repeatedly unsuccessful efforts to get Parliament to agree a law approving the country’s departure from the EU that she never lifted her eyes to the global horizon. As for Johnson, he has only been in the job for a few months and has been absorbed in finding a way to succeed where May failed.
Britain after Brexit is a blank sheet of paper. Time and events, no doubt, will begin to make an impression on this virgin canvas. But there is no master plan. Across the Channel, EU states, at least the main players like France and Germany, pursue the founding dream of ever-closer union, with much talk of closer economic integration (a single taxation system with fiscal transfers from wealthy regions to poorer ones) and a pooling of military assets. A European Army may still be a long way off, but the EU is already committed to a European Defence Fund from 2021 and the first-ever use of the EU budget for defence purposes, plus a permanent operational planning HQ for EU defence operations.
Ironically, Brexit, by pulling the sceptical Brits out of EU defence planning, may hasten the advent of a common European defence policy. What this means for NATO, the cornerstone of Western defence since the War, is anyone’s guess.
For Britain, Brexit is a bit like a child leaving home. For decades its politicians and officials have turned to Brussels for guidance (and more) on decisions small and large. Now the country is stepping out into the big, wide world. It will have to make decisions for itself and not rely on the parents to tell it what to do. A critical part of this second coming of age (the UK managed pretty well on its own up to 1973) will be the way it balances relationships with Europe to the east and the US to the west.
Britain’s foreign policy and defence instincts are closer to the Americans than to the Europeans. Just think of the way Tony Blair, with popular support, backed George W Bush’s “war on terror” and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But its predilection for the European social model (a big and powerful state, high welfare spending and distrust of private enterprise) drag it in the other direction on domestic matters.
Adlai Stevenson’s jibe about Britain losing an empire and not yet finding a role seems even more pertinent today as one “role” – that of the good European – turns to dust. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. As Churchill said, “We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised”.
But then Britain is different. It is not American, and it is not European. It is unique and Brexit gives it a fresh chance to carve out a new destiny for itself.