Brexit, NATO and the Dangerous Uncertainties Brewing in Europe

29.03.2019

Brits were fed up with Brussels telling them which cucumbers met European Union beauty standards and could therefore be sold in market. That was minor compared to fishing quotas placed on waters the British considered to be their own. Then there were the payments to subsidize weaker EU economies. In short, Britain was losing its sovereignty, and many didn’t like it.

British Prime Minister David Cameron took what appeared to be a well-calculated gamble to settle the issue. On February 20, 2016, he announced he would let the British people decide whether to remain in the European Union or to leave it. “He said he would be campaigning to remain in a reformed EU—and described the vote as one of the biggest decisions ‘in our lifetimes’” (“EU Referendum: Cameron sets June date for UK vote,” BBC.com, February 20, 2016).

The referendum was set for June 23, 2016. The colorful former London Mayor Boris Johnson, flame-throwing firebrand Nigel Farage, and MP Michael Gove led the “Leave” forces, but the bet was that in the end, people would stick with the status quo rather than take a leap into the dark of an uncertain future. Few believed the British would do it. Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn wanted Britain to stay within the union, but refused to stand with Cameron, hoping rather to bring down the Conservatives and make his own “Remain” deal.

THE STORM ARRIVES

I was in Brussels on the evening of the vote, enjoying a Belgian-style burger at an outdoor restaurant near the EU Parliament. Toward the end of the meal, it was clear that a large thunderstorm was brewing, and my colleague and I decided it was time to leave—and none too soon. His satellite navigation system warned him just in time to exit off a major four-lane highway or be tied up for hours due to downed trees, severed power lines, and flooding. Needless to say, it was a violent storm.

Back in my hotel in Charleroi, I turned on the television to see the latest news. Both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage expressed their disappointment that Brexit would come up short. That was the consensus of the hour. With the one-hour difference in time zones and the polls closing late, I decided to wait until morning to hear the inevitable.

The violent storm that hit the Brussels area the night of the vote was nothing compared to the storm that hit Britain and the EU the next morning. Britons had done the unthinkable. They voted to leave the EU.

A divorce is rarely easy and usually not simple. Serving divorce papers is one thing. Working through the details is quite another. England and Wales voted Leave, but Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar voted Remain. As recently as 2014, the Scottish National Party had called for a referendum to leave the not-always-united United Kingdom. The Scottish threat to divorce the UK and hitch their wagon to Europe is not a matter of idle words. How to solve the border issue between the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, remains a “sticky wicket.”

The Brexit crisis deepened this past January. The deal Prime Minister Theresa May made with the EU had to be ratified by Parliament, but Parliament voted “no deal” to the agreement by a stunning margin of 432 to 202. “Brexiteers” claim the deal brokered by Prime Minister May—now rejected—would have tied the UK to the EU indefinitely, but without any influence over EU rules. They believe that accepting that deal would have been worse than staying in the EU, a point with which the “Remainers” agree. The result was a dramatic defeat for the exit plan.

Many in North America fail to see the dangers brewing on the other side of the Atlantic. Will some kind of agreement between Britain and the European Union be cobbled together at the last hour? Or will there be no deal, what some call a “hard Brexit”? The answers will likely be much clearer by the time you read this, but no matter which way the worm turns, one thing is almost certain: Britain’s counterbalance to power on the continent, and its moderating influence, will be severely diminished.

Questions abound. What will happen to the British economy? There are differences of opinion, and only time will provide the answer. What will happen to the German economy? Twenty percent of Germany’s car exports went to Britain in 2016. An Irish Times article published this prediction on the eve of the January 16 parliamentary vote: “A no-deal Brexit could bring chaos to Germany’s crucial manufacturing and exporter sectors” (“Germany’s united front on Brexit crumbles ahead of London’s Tuesday vote” IrishTimes.com, January 15, 2019). Cyprus Mail Online chimed in, “‘The consequences of a “no deal” would be fatal,’ German auto industry association VDA said after the vote” (“German carmakers warn hard Brexit would be ‘fatal,’” Cyprus-Mail.com, January 16, 2019).

If the German economy tanks, what effect will that have on weaker European economies? Note this very sobering conclusion to a report titled “All or Nothing” from German-Foreign-Policy.com:

In the case of the “hard” Brexit, German industry stands to suffer losses in the double-digit billions.… The German government banks on an “all or nothing” policy—a maxim that has remained a characteristic feature of Berlin’s foreign policy for nearly 150 years, which has twice plunged Germany into collapse, not to mention the damage caused to neighboring countries (December 13, 2018, emphasis added).

Countries normally do not “give their power and authority” to another nation. A crisis is coming that will cause the European Union, as we know it, to be transformed. The Trump administration is pushing Germany to spend more on defense and has threatened to pull out of NATO. As the cliché goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” We shall talk about NATO in a moment.

On January 7, 2019, the business section of The Telegraph asked a sobering question in one of its articles: “Is this the year the world falls apart?” After laying out the facts and musing that the world will likely muddle through 2019, the article ends by saying, “The Western liberal order we took for granted at the end of the Cold War is under existential threat,” and noting the summary provided by one global analyst group: “We’re setting ourselves up for trouble down the road. Big trouble.” The wise will be watching as these puzzle pieces continue to come together.

Now, let delve a little bit into NATO. The question we might ask ourselves is this: After Libya, Syria, Ukraine, etc., can NATO be trusted as a “Custodian of Peace”?

For 70 years, NATO has been a key player in efforts to establish world peace. Yet our global problems remain. Will we ever achieve peace?

Soon after the conclusion of World War II, the victorious Allies formed a military counterbalance to resist the Soviet threat to Europe’s newly won peace. They called it the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and it is 70 years old this year. Since NATO’s establishment, Western Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and security. NATO has adapted itself to changing circumstances and widened its scope to include diplomatic and crisis resolution roles. Its membership has dramatically expanded from 12 to 29 countries and it has survived diverse threats to its survival.

UNTENABLE FUTURE?

This raises some important questions. With U.S. President Donald Trump insisting that reluctant NATO members should meet the agreed minimum contribution of two percent of their national budgets toward defense spending to support NATO operations, some are once again questioning the organization’s ability to survive in its current form. Should the United States of America continue to shoulder the largest share of NATO military costs in order to secure Europe’s peace in the face of increased levels of “Russian aggression”? The truth is that it’s not Russia that’s being aggressive but NATO itself led by Washington! Should Europe be doing more to look after itself? What if the European Union decided to finance its own competitive military forces, if the Washington was unwilling—or perhaps unable—due to more pressing issues in the Pacific? Will NATO always be there to guarantee the peace of Europe, or is there coming a time when there will be no more NATO?

FREEDOM AND SECURITY?

The main aim of NATO is to defend the freedom and security of its member nations, especially those in Europe. In 1948, the discussions leading to the NATO Alliance were prompted by the Soviet consolidation of power and influence in Eastern Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, including the critical Article 5 for Collective Defense: An attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies. The 12 founding members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

For decades during the Cold War, the NATO Alliance minimized conflict with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact countries through the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation of both sides (the so-called MAD doctrine—Mutually Assured Destruction!). By the 1960s, with nuclear deterrents in place, NATO essentially recognized its existence was critical to ensuring U.S.-Soviet nuclear parity. With relative peace as a result of NATO’s protection, the nations of Europe were free to pursue closer economic, social, and political ties by forming the EU.

Internal conflict within NATO hampered its responses to both the 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Such conflicts spurred NATO to develop and incorporate additional strategies to strengthen its military and diplomatic influence. NATO’s role expanded from “peace-keeping”—maintaining the status quo of the Cold War armed stand-off - to “peace-building” in a wider arena through international crisis resolution and managed support for political, economic, and social change.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Soviet threat melted away. However, this did not mean that NATO could disband. Peace and reconciliation did not bloom in Europe amongst those “freed” from Soviet influence. Local ethnic conflict flared in the Bosnian War, in which NATO fired its first shots in 1994, bringing down four Bosnian-Serb aircraft violating a U.N.-declared no-fly zone. In Bosnia, NATO learnt that a comprehensive approach was needed to resolve conflicts and build peace: the World Bank was needed for investment, the EU for governance, the U.N. for organizing elections, and NATO forces of essentially European national composition for building “lasting peace” on the ground and to identify with the local population.

In the modern era of international terrorism, NATO’s focus has shifted outside Europe and the North Atlantic to the source of present threats which NATO is very much guilty of exacerbating, especially in Libya and Syria, both starting in the fateful year of 2011. Other current efforts include missions in Kosovo, Iraq, and the Mediterranean Sea, as well as air-policing missions in the African Union. NATO led the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2014 following the allied intervention, transitioning security to Afghan authorities, and involving personnel from 50 NATO and partner nations. More than a thousand NATO personnel lost their lives during this time. And now, it seems we are back to square one: negotiating with the Taliban.

In July 2018, at a NATO Summit in Brussels, U.S. President Donald Trump highlighted financial so-called “burden sharing” as a big issue for NATO. He has called for NATO countries beyond the main contributors (the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and France) to take more responsibility for financing their own defense. At the same time, due to NATO’s aggressive behavior and eastern expansion well into the Russian sphere of influence, especially those efforts led by Washington, Russia is becoming increasingly assertive in Europe, entering eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea (February-March 2014) which many argue was always Russian territory minus those 23 years which Crimea was assigned to Ukraine (from 1991 to 2014).

This raises more questions: With Brexit in full swing, will NATO face another crisis, as Washington threatens to become more isolationist and minimizes its involvement? Will the EU be obligated to build a European military force to fill the vacuum created by a U.S. military absence—or even NATO’s demise? These are extremely crucial question which only time can answer.