How nice it would have been if it had turned out to be wrong. Alas, it is now beyond rational debate that the Brexiteers have sold false dreams. This has turned out to be a misconception, certainly in the words advocated by Boris Johnson and implemented without planning or strategy by his inept government. Many problems were escalated -om the chronic staff crisis crippling social care to the supply chain problems exposed in the pandemic – as businesses were trapped in bureaucracy and free movement was ended. And now we see again a vivid demonstration of the superficiality of global Britain’s grandiose discourse, exhibited by a stumbling Prime Minister who falls back on jokes or resorts to insulting allies when the going gets tough.
Global Britain was – like ‘level up’ and ‘take back control’ – a marketing slogan in search of substance. Yet, whether inside or outside the European Union, our role in the world must be rooted in a strong relationship with our neighbors, especially at a time of intense global challenges for democracy. Johnson spoke optimistically about forging ties with Europe on new terms. A few days after the vote, he spoke of “stepping up” cooperation, and even maintaining access to the single market. In its main post-Brexit strategic document on foreign policy, there was a firm commitment to ‘nurture constructive and productive relations with our neighbors … based on mutual respect for sovereignty’. He even claimed that Brexit would “take the breath away” of those “doing politics” with immigration.
Sadly, as so often with Johnson, it turned out to be a torrent of empty words, seemingly to make people believe he was worthy of national leadership. Fraser Nelson, the influential editor-in-chief of Spectator, wrote a remorseful column last week in which he claimed to have been seduced by the Brexit cause by talking about Global Britain. He asked what had happened to these “sunny highlands” and to stay close to Europe, noting that exports of services to the community had fallen twice as fast as in the rest of the world when most “new” trade agreements acclaimed by the Brexiteers had just been extended to the EU. The agreements. I quibble with his claim that Brexit guaranteed ‘the absence of populists in Parliament’ when they took control of the Tory Party, but he was right that protectionists win post-Brexit battles by all talk free trade activists.
Now look at the events of the past week involving France and Germany, the two most important European nations and our main allies in a world witnessing a withdrawal of world leadership by a weak president in Washington. Far from building bridges and deepening ties, Johnson has fallen into a stupid social media slang match with France over flotillas of small boats full of people hoping to reach the UK. Her interior minister, hopelessly overwhelmed, accuses everyone but herself. It is perhaps not surprising when each boat highlights the emptiness of its mantra of ‘taking back control’ and the absurdity of suggesting that Brexit could solve such a complex global problem. The collapse followed earlier fighting over fishing, a feud over vaccines and French fury after Paris fell victim to the Aukus submarine deal.
Brexit has actually weakened control over this type of migration. We have lost the ability to return people passing through safe European countries, as Britain is no longer part of the Dublin agreements and no longer has access to Eurodac’s fingerprint database. “Due to Brexit, I think that once in the UK I will finally be safe. No Dublin, no more fingerprints, ”a Sudanese teenager who was waiting to try his luck crossing the Channel told the Guardian. Every return agreement for rejected refugees must now be negotiated with individual countries – and the government has failed to find one with France. The UK is also no longer a member of Europol, the agency responsible for law enforcement cooperation, hampering police efforts to tackle smuggling gangs.
Now turn to Berlin. Olaf Scholz, Social Democrat winner in the September elections, has established his coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats. Already the next leader of Europe’s most powerful nation has made it clear that he sees France as his key partner. And he pointed out – rightly – that the UK supply chain crisis has been made worse by the end of free movement. Germany’s new government has now declared its opposition to Johnson’s attempt to quash his own Brexit deal. His coalition deal sends a wake-up call to Westminster by stressing the need for “full compliance” on the agreements reached – in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol – and threatening “countermeasures” if there is any. has an attempt to undermine the agreements.
Look beyond these two countries and we see concerns rise on our continent, inflamed by a Russian despot skilled at exploiting Western weakness. In Belarus, a brutal dictator militarized migration. In Bosnia, Serbian extremists are escalating tensions by speaking of separation in a chilling echo of the terrible conflict of three decades ago. In Hungary, a nationalist leader is deliberately undermining EU solidarity. In Ukraine, there are fears that Moscow is organizing a full-scale invasion. Further on, the Chinese dictatorship is strengthening its military force and spending a lot of money to spread its pernicious model around the world.
Yet at home we are run by populist hawkers who have seized power by selling snake oil. Now they are bragging about British exceptionalism while corroding crucial alliances and equating diplomacy with shouting over the Channel. Is this really the reality of their Global Britain?