By Dr. Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
The UK’s impending departure from the European Union on January 31 creates at least one certainty. Following the Tories’ resounding victory in the December parliamentary elections, any further talk of a second referendum is empty rhetoric; the idea was rejected at the ballot box. Now, at last, the European capitals and the institutions of the European Union can prepare for the United Kingdom’s exit. The time has therefore come to reason together about what the future transatlantic relationship of an EU without Great Britain should look like.
The nations on each side of the Atlantic have in the past often described themselves as each others’ closest allies, which can undoubtedly be explained by their history. The United Kingdom was the bridgehead between the two worlds, well versed in the customs of both.
That too is among the things that are no longer immutable certainties under Donald Trump – the British ambassador to Washington had to resign after some of his comments about the president were made public. But even previously, under Barack Obama, it had become clear that D.C. had recalibrated itself to speak to Europe as a single bloc rather than to all its constituent elements. With his famous choice of words, Obama made clear that the British would then have to stand “back of the queue,” using a word commonly used in British English, rather than “line,” as would be used in the U.S.
The Federal Republic of Germany, although an economically powerful member of the European Union, cannot fill the void left by the United Kingdom. The country is not mentally prepared to take on global political responsibility, which is to say: military responsibility. Under Angela Merkel, the Germans have further maximized their propensity for low-risk action, as can be seen just from the fact that Berlin has been impervious to all of French President Macron’s initiatives for the further development of the EU. It almost seems as if the German capital has decided to leave established processes and structures entirely untouched, since any further integration of the EU would require parliamentary majorities in the member states which, in light of the rising tide of populism, are not obtainable.
And England? During the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson always emphasized that the aim was to preserve a friendly relationship with Europe. In his view, the proximity and shared historical heritage spoke for themselves. That sounds pleasant, but is highly improbable. In the turbulent past, warring and murdering among the Christian nations of the Old World was continuous and constant. Shared culture and religion can be ruled out as potential sources of salvation. Only the leadership of the EU has given the West the longest period of peace that Christendom has ever seen. Europe attained its success when it gave its best ideas, human rights and the rule of law, an institutional vestment in secular fashion, unexcited by national zeal.
Perhaps all parties involved – the United States, the collective states of the EU and the United Kingdom – can take advantage of the moment and create a new institution: One that includes all the democratic powers in the world. The EU, NATO and the United Nations are all commendable institutions, and they were the right ones at the time of their creation. They were inspired by the idea of not repeating the horrors of World War II, determined to stand together in the ideological conflict of the Cold War – but now an iteration is needed that takes into account the realities of the beginning of the 21st century.
Even if China cannot and should not be declared an enemy, as was done during the Cold War, the People’s Republic of China and the nations that follow its model of autocratic government are opponents in the question of whether the world’s future will be free or illiberal. A coalition of powers and nations that together follow the ideals of human rights and the rule of law has therefore become imperative. In diplomacy, these countries are already referred to as “like-minded.” They span the entire world, from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to Europe, Uruguay and Canada. Strengthening the transatlantic relationship means freeing it from its North Atlantic fixation and reflecting on what has been the essence of liberal democracy’s success on both sides of the ocean.
After all, the USA followed the same recipe after the end of World War II in both the Pacific and Atlantic spheres: Constructive economic cooperation that was intended to lead over time to mutual and reliable policy. On the one side, Germany along with its neighbors in Europe; on the other, the old warring parties of Japan, the aggressor, and China and Korea as its victims. The world order that arose on this foundation must now proceed to the next round. A new institution would not only allow the scars of Brexit to heal, but also appeal to and incentivize the erratic USA in new ways. And the more countries and people are involved, the better Germany feels about it.
In such a scenario, the world map would be dominated by free and liberal societies, all of which are democracies. Together, they can tackle the major issues of our time: modifying our economic system, climate change and the flow of refugees, to name just a few. In this regard, “like-mindedness” should translate into friendship. We are well disposed toward each other and so we should want to build with each other, not against each other.
Dr. Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and an affiliate in the “In Defense of Democracy”-program by the F. D. Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard University.