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Post-Brexit, imperiled transatlantic relationship more important than ever

(Editor’s note: This post about the post-Brexit world was originally posted on The Economic Standard. It’s reposted here with permission.)

By Dr. Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

The United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union on 31 January 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 UK’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.

Brexit leaves a huge leadership void

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.

A global coalition of the free

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.

Dr. Alexander Görlach

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. 

About Dr. Alexander Görlach

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. 

The Economic Standard home.

See Dispatches’ Brexit archive here.

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