Now Britain has chosen to leave the EU, the next big question we need to address is: what shall we seek to do instead? There are three basic options for us.
– We could seek new geopolitical partners outside Europe.
– We could seek to create a new European group.
– We could seek to operate by ourselves without any geopolitical partners to replace the EU ones.
Each of these three options has strong attractions. The first makes us most powerful. The third makes us richest. The second means that things change the least.
I favour the first option. There are various possible versions of it, but the one that seems most natural and attractive to me is for the UK to seek to develop a new geopolitical partnership with Canada and Australia. If we add in New Zealand we get a nice acronym: CANZUK (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK).
One reason this seems like a very natural option is the following. Suppose (as I do) you believe that the UK was pretty happy, for a long time, in the EU, working together with similar-sized countries with fairly similar values, developing closer and closer economic and political linkages, but that in the end it proved impossible for us to take the final steps toward political union because we did not have sufficient cultural or constitutional similarity with our partners. It also hasn’t helped that some of our partners had very different wealth and wage levels from our own.
If that’s why we are leaving the EU, then the most obvious alternative is to look for some countries, of similar scale to our own, with whom we have more in common culturally and constitutionally and in terms of wealth and income. Well, if that’s the question it answers itself: Canada and Australia and New Zealand have extremely similar cultures and constitutions and wealth and income levels to ours.
A CANZUK union would be a very significant geopolitical player, with a combined GDP of about three quarters of that of China, the fourth largest economic area in the world. It would have the largest land area of any union. It would have the third largest defence expenditure. It would be a very significant geopolitical player. Over a fifty year timescale, with its large surface area and its ability to attract population plus its enormous mineral resources, well-developed property rights and political culture, its dynamic and innovative economies and global reach, it could well evolve into one of the top two or three geopolitical groupings. This is the option that gives Britain the greatest ability to project its values and constitutional ideas over the medium term – if we can get the Canadians and Australians on board.
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First steps would be to agree initial trade deals and mutual free movement. Then we could establish deeper defence partnerships – sending British ships to defend the North West Passage and offering a British nuclear shield to Australia. We could move on perhaps to a customs union (though that might not be necessary) and regulatory convergence. Perhaps we could eventually establish some political oversight institutions – a Parliament, a Court and a civil service. One presumes these would be located in New Zealand, so as not to favour any of the three main players. But an alternative model might be to build out from existing Canadian institutions — in the limiting case, perhaps the other parties could formally apply to become parts of Canada. That might also ease Canadian arrangements with the US.
A second option would be to create a new European group. That cannot be done quickly, since it requires two key things to happen if it is to work. First, some other countries would need to leave the EU. Second, an additional group of countries would need to become more politically stable, cultural liberal and economically developed than they are now. But perhaps the process could get under way within five to ten years and build out over the following 40.
The version of this that seems most plausible to me is what I think of as a ring donut alliance. There would be a core Europe of the Single European State. Then around that there would be a second European and North African alliance, running around the Single European State in a ring. That might start with Sweden, Denmark and Finland choosing to leave the EU, then combining with the UK, then the grouping extending to include Poland, Czechia, Hungary and Turkey. Later, as the decades passed, we would eventually seek to extend the group to include Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.
This ring donut alliance would have very close dealings with the Single European State. There would probably be free movement of goods and capital, very close regulatory cooperation, and free movement of persons up to some population-weighted limits (so, perhaps the UK might accept the first 100,000 Single European State citizens who arrived each year, no questions asked, and only start to sieve after that). There would obviously also be some cooperation over issues such as environmental policies. The ring donut countries would not, however, be subject to any laws made in the Single European State or any of its court judgements.
The third broad option would be for the UK to operate alone, without any replacement geopolitical partners. The most natural version of that might be for the UK to reinvent itself as a latter-day Singapore or Switzerland, commercially focused and with less interest in defence interventions or non-trade diplomacy. Then we could do new trade deals with whoever wanted one, welcome in money from anywhere without asking too many questions, mind our own business and free-ride on the peace and order imposed or preserved in the world by others.
Doubtless we’d occasionally submit an opinion at the UN and send along a few hundred blue helmet forces every now and then. But at the broader level the attitude might be that we’d done our bit for now. For centuries, the UK has spent considerable higher proportions of our blood and treasure and diplomatic energy on preserving international order, liberty and justice than almost any other countries. Maybe it’s time we stepped back and let others bear the burden for a while.
Each of these options has its attractions, as I say. I favour the first. It makes us the most powerful, if we can do it. I suspect the main ambition of most current UK politicians who have favoured Remaining in the EU will be to seek some version of the second – the option that keeps things closest to what we have now. Under the third, we would be less important in the world, but we would have the consolation of being richer.
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