Re-published from August 2020
On independence, Russian style
The House of Commons Select Committee on the Future Relationship with Europe conducted its last oral session before the summer recess interviewing experts on the future of UK foreign and security policies after Brexit, and the scope for future coordination in these areas with the EU.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, from the Royal United Services Institute explained to the committee that post-Brexit UK, as a self-consciously independent and sovereign nation, would pursue a foreign and security policy designed to maintain and affirm its independent sovereignty. Broad, deep and enduring relationships with other nations and groups of nations were therefore, perhaps with the exception of the NATO military alliance, to be avoided in future.
“Strategically, I think most of all the Government want to have an independent foreign policy, in which they have clear legal sovereignty, unconstrained by any arrangements with the EU, and then, from that basis, they can agree, case by case, on the basis of equality, what to do in terms of cooperation.”
In the initial period after Brexit, a number of leading ‘Leave’ campaigners suggested that the UK on leaving the EU would turn, or return, to a political and trade alliance comprising its former Settler Colonies – the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This was a popular notion, known as the ‘Anglosphere’ among imperialists around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This policy vision, in some ways a simple reversal of trade policy choices determined by the UK entry to the Common Market in 1973, has faded somewhat in the years since 2016, mainly because of the distinctly limited reciprocal interest shown in this arrangement by the other nations in the Anglosphere. Theresa May’s policy set out in her Florence speech proposed an ostensibly hard Brexit in terms of trade and sovereignty, but with much of its trade implication softened for an indefinite future by the effects of the Irish backstop, along with extensive negotiated regulatory convergence and policies of deep closeness and cooperation in foreign and security affairs. Johnson, on taking power, broke with the backstop arrangements for the island of Britain at the price of a new customs border in the Irish Sea, and decisively hardened the trade terms of Brexit by a new red-line of insistence on untrammelled rights to regulatory divergence. This change was accompanied by a harder, more aggressive and polemic turn in negotiating rhetoric, trumpeting the UK’s difference from the EU in terms of its affirmation and prioritisation of the values of democratic sovereignty, freedom and independence. While insisting on the sovereign equal status of the UK and EU as negotiating interlocutors (defiantly ignoring the practical reality of vast inequalities in the respective populations and economies), the UK awarded itself moral and political bonus points and rights as a truly legitimate sovereign and democratic entity, fully entitled as such to insist on the non-negotiable status of whatever basic rights it deemed essential to its independence.
There is little doubt that Brexit’s backers in both America and Russia supported Britain’s exit not so much for its own sake, but as an instrument and step towards the break up or decisive weakening of the EU, which they perceived as a stone in their shoes in terms of business, governance and geopolitical interests. On the morning of June 24th 2016, Gove and Johnson celebrated the event as ‘Independence Day’ for the UK and as the first domino of many, the beginning of the end of the EU and the dawn of freedom for other EU member states. The recent negotiating line under Johnson and Cummings has returned to this openly aggressive subtext: the EU’s claims to affirm and defend its legitimate principles or core values are dismissed, and its failure to concede to UK demands considered as a mere symptom of obtuse ill will.
However, when the EU responds that the UK’s cherry picking demands would have the effect of undermining the principles of the Single Market, it would probably be entitled to suspect that such effects are actively sought and desired by the UK, and by the offshore sponsors of Brexit.
British commentators of all persuasions readily forget that the language of anti-EU polemic is far from having been the unaided creation of British Eurosceptics. Much is the product of US interests and lobbies, the right-wing market political machine of the Kochs and others, training, cloning and bankrolling its ideological clients and compradors in the UK. Dark money has flowed into the making of Brexit from America, Putin and other sources. It is likely to have been flowing in 2003-5 from the Heritage Foundation to the New Frontiers Foundation founded by Cummings and his ally James Frayne (recently awarded an £840,000 contract by Cummings to work on Covid-19 and Brexit communications). Indeed New Frontiers Foundation arranged a platform in London for lectures by US academics close to the Heritage Foundation and hostile to the EU.
None of these offshore backers are likely to have been primarily motivated by concern for the interests of the UK and its citizens. Neither, one may reasonably infer, are some of their UK clients. For them the spoils of Brexit may already be offshore or can easily be taken there. If Brexit, as a battering ram to damage or destabilise the EU, causes some collateral damage to the UK, this may not unduly worry Koch, the Mercers, Putin or Bannon. For Putin’s zero-sum strategy, a degree of damage to the UK is positively welcome and intended: if the outcome ensures the maintenance of an ongoing and reliable UK money-laundering service, secured from the encroaching threat of EU surveillance and policing. For global business players, there is a clear expectation that an ‘independent’ UK will have neither the strength nor the motivation to impede the agenda of the business giants. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report (at least in its public version) had the one key merit of properly recognising the structural and strategic importance to Putin’s Russia of London’s ‘laundromat’.