#geopolitical fridays: #EUWargames and Brexit security implications


OE #EUWargames, London, 25.01.2016: Clockwise around the table  – Steffen Kampeter (Germany, appearing on monitor), Malcolm Rifkind (UK), John Bruton (Ireland) and Noëlle Lenoir (France, with her back to us), (Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, as well as EU institutions not pictured) Getty Images

For this week’s #geopolitical fridays, yet another glimpse into Europe’s future – this time not about the Middle Ages, but rather on marriage and divorce. Bear with me.

Last Monday, Open Europe, a British independent think tank on whose advisory board I sit organised a day-long exercise in live politics, wargaming two scenarios with a stellar cast of political players – British negotiations pre-referendum and negotiations in case of Brexit (click here for more info, including participants and livestream). Stephen Booth, Open Europe’s co-director has summed up important lessons from this hugely interesting and instructive exercise. 


Here is what I am
taking away from the Open Europe #EUWargames: Pre-referendum
negotiations are a tremendous wasted opportunity to salvage the
very idea of Europe. And UK negotiations post-Brexit would most likely yield a comparatively better deal as apparent from the war games simulation. But the overall fall-out
of Britain leaving would have serious strategic implications for both the UK and the EU.

Why are current
negotiations by the UK to secure a better deal for Britain such a
tremendous wasted opportunity? Because they have failed to create a rally for profound change in Europe. In an ideal world, negotiations should lead to the replacement of the
current structure with a new European architecture, which would
actually be able to accommodate the needs of all member states and neighbouring
countries – A two-circle Europe, along the lines suggested by
Enrico Letta, former Italian Prime Minister participating in the #EUWargames.

But instead of facing
the facts – a faltering project of European integration, at risk of
losing the very idea of “Europe” to forces of populism –
precious time is wasted fiddling with small adjustments hoping to
accommodate UK demands. Yes, negotiations would most likely deliver
something that Prime Minister David Cameron could claim as a victory.
But at what prize? Ultimately, this would just kick the can further down the road, following the usual EU modus
of the last ten years. A British vote to “stay in” would produce an audible sigh of relief across the continent –  and everyone would got back to business as usual.

Yet opinion polls
throughout European countries are affirmative – sympathy with the
EU is on the wane, with ever higher percentages of those polled
expressing the opinion that their country would be better off without
the euro or membership in the EU. Roughly a third of French or
German citizens believe that there will be a return of the nation state;
only a third believe that the EU is their future. Many see the EU as the cause of the ongoing political and financial crises –
an incarnation of globalisation, responsible for destroying or
eroding national identities. Here, the issue of migration, lumped together with the question of refugees is bound to have a disproportionate, decisive impact not only on the referendum in the UK, but on the EU’s destiny in general.

If there is such a thing as a European
identity, it is a negative, inward-looking one: Fear of an unknown
future, fear of economic competition and fear of losing one’s
identity due to the workings of a cosmopolitan bureaucracy. But given how the EU, and especially the euro is currently structured, further integration is needed, for which there is little to no popular support. Politicians
are thus stuck  between fear of the markets and fear of their electorate. The only possible way out of this conundrum would be to radically change the trajectory of the EU, moving to a flexible and politically pragmatic model of cooperation organised around the single market. The euro might or might not survive the next decade as a currency. But what is surely dead is the “one-size fits all” approach of European integration. Tragically, there are no political leaders to steer the EU on such a course of salvation, something which in my opinion ultimately dooms the EU to fail. Not a pleasant perspective.


So what treatment could Britain expect if it were to leave the European Union? The #EUWargames afternoon session devoted to simulating post Brexit negotiations revealed just how incredibly emotional things would initially get. I was quite amazed that even seasoned politicians in a game were swept away by their feelings: Hurt love, hurt pride and real anger made the air quite difficult to breathe at times. So steering Britain through these waters would be a bumpy ride. But in the end, given the importance of the UK for the EU as a whole, a special, tailor-made agreement is likely to be found. But the prize to be paid by both Britain and the EU would be significant – in terms of time and energy not spent on more pressing things, such as meeting future challenges, for example. And in terms of political capital lost, within Europe and without.

What would be the consequences
in terms of defense and security, for Britain and for the EU, if the
United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union after a referendum
scheduled in 2016? While most #EUWargames players agreed that much of security co-operation could
be organised to go on as before, and defense anyway being the remit of NATO, bureaucratic friction is to be expected. 

But more importantly, without a doubt, Brexit would seriously weaken the European Union, and this
beyond simply loosing its second biggest economy and a major
international player. Above all, Britain leaving the EU would be symbolically
detrimental, to the extent that it ties in with the withering of Europe
and “the West” as political narratives and alternative systems in a globalised
world. And such a perception, of a declining West, would in turn negatively affect Britain’s
strategic environment.

OE #EUWargames – a success, but not painting a pretty picture.

Johanna M

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