Britain’s soft power has already been bruised by this government’s willingness to flout international law. We cannot afford to alienate relationships further by entertaining a no deal Brexit. If more time is required, then so be it
Almost sixty years ago, American President John F. Kennedy committed to land a human on the moon in his historic speech to Congress. It was a bold commitment with a clear tactical goal. America’s future influence in the world hinged entirely on the outcome. When Neil Armstrong planted the stars and stripes on the lunar surface on July 20th 1969, who could doubt that the one small step for mankind, was also one giant leap for America’s prestige.
In contrast our 2016 referendum could not have been more different. Think back to the question we were all asked. ‘Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ Unlike a moon landing where the difference been success or failure is clear, what ‘LEAVE’ meant was never articulated or formally agreed.
The world watched with trepidation as Apollo 11 blasted off into unchartered territory – aiming not just for the moon, but a specific destination in the Sea of Tranquillity. Years later a global audience would, yet again, witness another journey into the unknown. But this time Brexit was given the green light to launch but without an agreed destination. It takes four days to reach the moon. Landing Brexit, in contrast, has taken four years and we’re still counting.
We’ve had to learn along the way – a lexicon of detail, glossed over during the referendum itself, which has illuminated the complexities of this mission. For example, our future relationship with the single market and customs union, complicated by our land border with the EU in Northern Ireland.
As discussions over the detail now go to the wire, we are having to think the previously unthinkable and prepare for the possibility of no deal. To some, understandably worn out by a journey that has continued to polarise the country, this simple but ruthless outcome seems appealing. We depart on our own terms, in command of our own destiny and liberated from continental rules that might impede our future prosperity.
Unfortunately, the euphoria will be short lived. The Office of Budget Responsibility already projects Brexit will set our GDP back 4%. To depart without a deal would see another 2% loss. Covid fallout adds another 11% hit. There is no doubt the hit to our economy and consequential rise in unemployment would imperil the Conservative Party’s prospects at election time.
Our voice, experience and leadership are needed on the global stage. We must decide if we want to be Global Britain or Little Britain.
Step back from the battle over the details and you begin to appreciate how a no deal Brexit will impact Global Britain. The world order we helped create after 1945 and globalise after the fall of the Soviet Union is facing collapse. Threats are diversifying and becoming more complex, at the very same time we witness a decline in Western resolve – what we stand for, believe in and are willing to defend.
As the UK assumes the G7 presidency and hosts COP26, we have the chance to stand tall with a new White House administration, invigorated to repair our frail world order and contest the rise of both authoritarian state and non-state actors that for too long have been free to pursue their own agendas.
Yet here we are, seemingly willing to retreat from the world’s stage, alienating relationships with the continent and indeed the United States by entertaining the prospect of no deal only a week after we cut our overseas aid budget. Our soft power, arguably the most influential in the world, has already been bruised by this government’s willingness to flout international law by breaching the Withdrawal Agreement brokered in Brussels, a treaty we signed less than a year ago. I was among a small group of MPs who persuaded the Prime Minister to include Bob Neil’s amendments allowing Parliamentary oversight on pursuing such controversial action. Nevertheless, reputational damage has been done.
The government’s Integrated Review emphasises our commitment to re-establish a more pro-active role on the international stage giving real purpose to ‘Global Britain’. It would be an abject failure of statecraft to leave the EU with no deal. If more time is required, then so be it. We must summon the political courage to get this right. The West is about to regroup. Our voice, experience and leadership are needed on the global stage. We must decide if we want to be Global Britain or Little Britain.