As of Jan.
1, Britain has completed the process of leaving the European Union. The EU has
assured all that dire consequences will haunt the British. Certainly, there
will be economic consequences for the U.K., but it is hard to imagine that the
departure of the second-largest economy in Europe will not have significant
consequences for Europe as well. At minimum, the completion of Britain’s
departure shatters a myth about the European Union. The name “European Union”
had become synonymous with “Europe.” This was never a true equivalency, as
there were European nations excluded from and uninterested in membership like
Switzerland and Norway, which chose a non-member relationship. But with Britain
on the outside, the sense that the EU speaks for Europe is gone. Britain is a
foundational part of Europe, one of Europe’s liberators in World War II and,
beginning with the Roman invasion of England, Europe’s occasional enemy and
savior. Britain has been a defining force in Europe, and now it has left the
European Union. This will challenge the bloc in many ways, the first being that
the EU is no longer interchangeable with Europe. Now there is another Europe:
referendum, there have been two issues. The first was whether British opponents
of Brexit could overthrow the result of the referendum. The second was whether
the EU could, without appearing excessively conciliatory to the rest of the
European Union. At times these two forces seemed to work together to block
Brexit. In the end they failed, although Brussels is likely to continue to seek
to impose pain, until the British stop buying Mercedes cars in favor of Lexus.
At that point the central power of Europe, Germany, will put an end to punitive
measures, and the EU will move on.
issue now is Britain defining its place in the world. It is a strange one.
There is little warfare in Europe at the moment, and little to fear from
European powers militarily. This is an odd situation to be in. Between 1945 and
1991, Britain faced the Soviet threat. From 1914 to 1945, Britain faced the
German threat, with a truce in between. Now, what threat there is is distant
and theoretical. Britain remains a member of NATO, not really a European entity
even if most of its members are European. The United States provides the
potential military power to NATO, and Britain is one of the few European
nations to possess significant military force, and even global reach, at the
core of NATO.
was allied in war with Britain in World War I and II, the Cold War, Desert
Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these wars may not have been wise, but
they cemented relations between the militaries. For the continental European
countries, shattered by the world wars and terrified by the Cold War, the
primary issue is a focus on the economy and the avoidance of conflict. Britain
sits across the English Channel, facing a region that has historically drawn it
into conflicts but for a millennium failed to invade Britain. Britain’s history
has been shaped by the need to intervene in Europe due to its fragmentation.
What is inconceivable to Europe is a historical reality to Britain.
problem is that it cannot control the evolution of Europe by itself. In World
War II, the United States stripped Britain of its empire, and limited both its
force and its reach. The British resented U.S. postwar policy, but they lived
with it, Britain being a master of living with the inevitable. It aligned
itself with the United States, and on the whole, it worked out well. During the
Falklands War, it was U.S. satellite imagery given to Britain that enabled a
rapid victory. In recent wars, Americans and the British fought together with
an ease that neither had enjoyed with other countries. From military to
intelligence operations, the two countries were as closely aligned as sovereign
nations can permit themselves. Regardless of how stiff-necked the U.S. was on
the empire, the two countries fought a century of wars together against the
Germans and in spite of friction with the French or other allies. Recently, the
British sent an aircraft carrier to the Western Pacific in support of U.S.
alliance of the British and Americans goes deeper than this. Together they form
part of the Five Eyes, a grouping of five states – the others are Australia,
Canada and New Zealand – committed to sharing intelligence. Military
cooperation is valuable but not extraordinary. The willingness of these five
countries to see the intelligence gathered by any of them is extraordinary. It
also follows military cooperation. Canadians alternate with Americans in
commanding the North American Aerospace Defense Command. The Australians
operate in the same region as China. The New Zealanders with minimal force and
far more caution share intelligence. But all five of these countries fought in
the world wars and other conflicts.
the question of where Britain is, the following answers arise. First, trade is
important, but the North American markets are as large as the EU. Second,
Europe is highly unpredictable and frequently volatile, while Britain’s
presence in NATO keeps it in Europe alongside the United States, and therefore
with weight. Finally, the Five Eyes, descendants of Britain who evolved to
their own satisfaction, focuses these nations on something that is frequently
more important than anything: war and its prevention through intelligence.
Scottish and Welsh issues are likely to be contained, but for now I make this
argument. Britain is no longer the ruler of a global empire. It cannot live
with Europe, but it must align with others. The Five Eyes, as an intelligence
and military alignment, is already in place and need not be negotiated. The
alliance is sufficiently loose that no one is obligated to do more than share
intelligence. It is also bound by history. And those five nations can be a
force to be reckoned with, as well as a market already shared and readily
opened. And each nation has an interest in it.
never be too enthusiastic. Friction is the nature of the beast. But this
alliance is already in place, and extending it to economics (with many free
trade agreements already in place) is the logical next step.
*George Friedman (Hungarian: Friedman György,
Budapest, February 1, 1949) is Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical
forecaster, and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and
chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an online publication that analyzes and
forecasts the course of global events.