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Professor Dr. Christian Kaunert: ”The EU will have opportunities from Brexit. Without Britain, the EU will be able to define more easily what kind of diplomatic and military actors it wants to be”
UK leaving the European Union takes place in an increasingly complex and challenging international context, and to make things even more complicated the bilateral negotiations meant to deliver an agreement by the end of this year are stalling. The good news is that the outcome of the presidential elections in the USA promises to be beneficial to the transatlantic relationship on the whole and to (eventually) contribute to the UK-EU relationship being repaired.

Prof. Dr. Christian Kaunert of University of South Wales has offered his views on Brexit, its ramifications and implications from a transatlantic perspective in the interview given to Geostrategic Pulse Magazine.

Geostrategic Pulse: The US presidential election proved to be, in terms of direction of the American foreign policy over the coming years, about choosing between Joe Biden’s Restoring American Leadership and Donald Trump’s America First.

Restoring American Leadership entails a complex foreign and security agenda to deal with the pressing challenges posed by China, Russia, Iran or the instability in the Middle East at large, not to mention the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate. Nevertheless, president Biden’s priorities are expected to be mainly domestic – social, economic, response to COVID-19 crisis.

That given, and with the EU and UK caught in a separation battle with no clear consensus in sight, to what extent – In your opinion – will, or should fixing the Brussels-London relationship become priority for the new American administration?

The anti-Democratic (anti-Barack Obama, to be more precise) rhetoric component of the Donald Trump-Boris Johnson relationship aside, what should we expect from the president elect Joe Biden (whom Boris Johnson congratulated on winning the elections, though) in terms of Washington’s approach and policy on UK when it comes to Brexit?

What about the way Washington will see and approach the overall transatlantic relationship during Joe Biden’s mandate, in the light of Brexit and of Europeans promoting the concept of strategic authonomy?

Prof. Dr. Christian Kaunert: Many thanks for the interview. These are indeed extremely important questions. Let us take the issues one by one.

Firstly, it is very clear that the new Biden administration will have a very significant impact on the transatlantic relationship between the EU and the US. There will be a very different tone in the relationship between the two sides. While President Trump, on occasion, gave the impression that the EU was perceived as a competitor, if not an antagonist in the international system, this will be a very different relationship under the Biden Administration. President-elect Biden is a veteran of foreign policy with a long history of positive relations with the EU, and, thus, will quickly improve the tone of the relationship. This does not mean that there are no differences of opinion between Biden and the EU, which, of course, there are. There are also significant differences in interests on both sides. But, a change of tone will have a significant impact on the mood music.

Secondly, the Biden administration will be instinctively closer to the position of Ireland inside the EU. This is an important difference to the Trump administration because it will have a very significant impact on the Good Friday agreement. Coming from a line of Democratic administrations, such as the Bill Clinton administration, which had a very significant impact on the Good Friday peace process, the Biden administration is very likely to keep the agreement as an ultimate objective to preserve. This will automatically put the Biden administration somewhat at odds with the current UK government, which has prioritised Brexit over the Good Friday agreement. Of course, PM Johnson will make significant efforts to come closer to the Biden administration, but, in general structural terms, his interests are not very well aligned with President-elect Biden, who is more likely to support the Irish position inside the EU. As a result of that, Biden will aim to bring London closer to Brussels in order for frictions to exacerbate, but this will be a difficult task, especially when it comes to the Good Friday agreement.

Finally, Biden will be much closer to Brussels than the Trump administration on many issues, from trade to security. Notwithstanding this, this closer alignment will also have a price. President-elect Biden will have significantly higher expectation of the EU than President Trump. He will want stronger support in confronting China, in confronting Russia, and more generally in terms of peace and stability in the world, as well as within the United Nations system. This has the potential to cause frictions with European countries. I believe, nonetheless, that the EU will welcome him with open arms and will be as helpful as it can.

UK and EU are first trade partner of choice for each other (EU accounted for 43% of UK exports in 2019 and 51% of UK imports, according to official data), but the ongoing negotiations are more than just about trade.

What are, in fact, the main lines of disagreement between London and Brussels and where do the two sides stand?

In addition, since reaching an agreement with the EU proves to be so difficult, what are the chances for Boris Johnson’s government to reach a speedy trade agreement with Joe Biden’s administration?

This is a very important, but very difficult topic.

On the face of it, one might suspect that a trade deal between the EU and the UK should be easy. Economically speaking, the UK is very closely linked to the EU and, thus, should not have too many difficulties to agree a close relationship. Yet, it is important to remember that Brexit is not an economically driven process, but one that is built on an emotionally charged relationship that deteriorated over the last years, starting with PM Gordon Brown, who did not want to sign the Lisbon Treaty in the same room as all the other member states, to PM Cameron, who, firstly, withdrew the Tories from the EPP in the European Parliament, and, then subsequently, offered an in or out referendum to the British public. We all know the results of that, which ultimately, resulted in the departure of the UK from the EU. More than even emotionally driven, this has been an identity driven process, whereby the UK has never truly felt comfortable in the EU structures, even during the times of PM Tony Blair. By history, geography and political experience, the UK has always felt a different identity to continental EU member states. As such, it was perhaps not too surprising that the British public voted to leave the EU.

What does this mean for the relationship between London and Brussels? Very clearly, the relationship has deteriorated to the point where it has become somewhat antagonistic. On the one hand, the UK has often felt misunderstood by continental Europe. It did not feel acknowledged as a major global power with many global trading and security links. It felt pigeonholed into a continental role where it did not feel comfortable. It aimed to achieve a special role inside the EU, which many EU countries thought had been achieved. Notably, the UK has had opt-outs from the Euro, from Schengen, and major parts of the Justice and Home Affairs acquis. Thus, continental EU countries believed due attention had been given to the UK’s special status and role in the world. Yet, this was not perceived in the same way in the UK, and the aforementioned examples, such as PMs Brown, Cameron and May are a testimony to that. With the first Brexiteer PM Johnson, the political mood in the UK changed significantly whereby many pro-EU politicians where dispatched from the Tory party and the wider Whitehall machinery. As a result, there has been a significant change in the UK’s self-perception of its role in the world as a global power, more closely linked to the US and to the Anglosphere. This implies less close relations with Brussels, whether that be on trade or security matters. These ideational obstacles cannot be easily overcome through economic considerations.

With regard to a US-UK trade agreement, the chances have significantly decreased with the arrival of the Biden administration. While it might have been difficult to get a trade deal through Congress under a second term Trump administration, the negotiations of such an agreement might have gone relatively speedier. The UK is now faced with a Biden administration that, for geopolitical reasons, will prioritize the EU if it believes a deal can be done with the EU. As a result of these new priorities, the UK will likely have to wait behind the EU in terms of trade agreement, unless Biden believes that a deal cannot be done with the EU. However, having said this, once an agreement between the US and the UK is reached, it is likely to be ratified more speedily by Congress under a Biden administration.

Although UK remains one of the European pillars of NATO, Brexit will undoubtedly produce changes in the way EU approaches European security and defence, and will also have an impact on EU within the unfolding great power competition.

What can you tell us about the way Brexit will influence the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)?

Indeed, Brexit will have a very significant effect on the EU’s CFSP. Firstly, the most important military power in Europe will be outside the structures of the EU. While France is clearly a crucial military player on the continent, the loss of the UK will deprive the EU of its strongest military assets, capabilities and intelligence information, alongside diplomatic muscle. The EU as a whole is significantly weaker without the UK.

At the same time, the EU will have opportunities from Brexit as well. The EU structures need significant reform, most notably the question whether national vetoes can be sustained in CFSP, in the long run. Without the UK, perhaps, the EU will be finding the institutional challenges easier to resolve. The UK will not be able to block moves towards some kind of majority voting, some kind of European defence structures and stronger EU foreign policy initiatives. At the same time, the UK will be able to cooperate on all of these developments on an ad hoc basis, and perhaps provide its expertise and capabilities where it deems them to be in its interest.

What are, in your opinion, the most significant effects of Brexit on the EUs “Strategic Compass” (one of the most discussed initiatives related to EU security and defence during Germany’s ongoing Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2020 and that will continue to be in 2021)?

The most significant change will be my last point – the EU will have opportunities from Brexit. Without Britain, the EU will be able to define more easily, what kind of diplomatic and military actors it wants to be. Most 27-Member States share a continental identity that involves similar interests of some kind. Without the UK, perhaps, the EU will be finding such challenges easier to resolve. The UK will not be able to fudge a European with an Atlantic identity, thus allowing a more clearly defined European policy. At the same time, the UK will not be able to provide its ‘geopolitical muscle’ to this initiative. That might reduce the effectiveness in the long run.

As for the EU defence industry, to what extent will its capacity be affected by Brexit given, inter alia, the fact that major projects like EUROFIGHTER have been benefitting from significant British contribution (through BAE Systems)?

Indeed, Brexit will have a very significant effect on defence capabilities. Firstly, the most important military power in Europe will no longer have its capabilities inside the EU. Major projects may continue for now, but, in the long run, it will be more difficult to continue such projects without a shared vision where they should go. While UK capabilities will still make a difference inside Europe, the EU as a whole is significantly weaker without the UK.

Since Brexit will have an impact on the British-French military partnership, do you see France finding a viable alternative?

No, simply put, France has no viable alternative to the UK. France will aim to move closer to Germany, but the German defence outlook is very different from France’s, as the latest discussion between President Macron and German Defence Secretary Kramp-Kahrenbauer demonstrates. Therefore, France will try to continue some kind of close military partnership with the UK, albeit at a lower efficiency level.

Could all the above (Brexit and its effects) have an impact on NATO as well?

Indeed, Brexit will have a very significant effect on NATO. Firstly, the most important military power in Europe will no longer have its capabilities inside the EU, but outside. This means NATO will no longer be as EU-centric. Combined with the disagreements with Turkey, this has the potential to unbalance NATO in the long run.

Finally, being aware of Great Britain’s military and economic power, as well as its internationally recognised influence, how do you think the European Union, in the post-Brexit context, will be perceived – and dealt with – on the international stage by relevant actors like China, Russia, Iran, Turkey?

Simply put, the EU will be perceived as much weaker without the UK. France will aim to move closer to Germany, but this development will provide opportunities for Russia, China and other actors to put pressure on the EU like never before. We have just seen the rhetorical arguments between Germany, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other hand, in the UN Security Council. We will see much more of this in the future whereby it may become a distant possibility that Russian relations with Europe will become closer as a result of combined pressure of Russia and China on the EU. This could, in the long run, create a split between the Atlantic partners, USA, UK and Canada, and the continental European partners. Therefore, the EU’s role will be diminished.

Along with Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election, Brexit could help redefine and improve the transatlantic partnership.

Do you see that happening within NATO (especially in cybersecurity where the UK is a world leader) or in the common management of tensions and crises at global level by NATO and EU?

Yes, this is a possibility, but I think in the long run I would be less optimistic. It is more likely that Russian relations with Europe will become closer as a result of Brexit tensions, combined with pressure by Russia and China on the EU. We could, in the long run, observe a split between the Atlantic partners, USA, UK and Canada, and the continental European partners. This is, in fact, the geopolitical objective of Russia in its strong support for Brexit – get the UK out of Europe, and, by so doing, get the Americans out of Europe, providing much more geopolitical space for Russia and China. The EU will be diminished as a result.