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13 February 2020

LSE: Britain needs friends in the post-Brexit era. Alienating EU allies would be counter-productive

Amid the posturing about trade, the fact that Britain no longer has a voice in the EU has gone largely unremarked, writes N Piers Ludlow. He warns that alienating European allies by talking tough risks harming the UK’s soft power and long-term interests.

[...]Part of the answer, clearly, will be to make maximum use of our diplomatic representation, not just in Brussels itself but in all of the member state capitals. For this reason, the government’s pledge in 2018 to boost the strength of UK diplomatic representations is a sensible move.[...]

Likewise we should welcome and seek to build on the widespread professions of enduring friendship that accompanied our departure last month. The more we can consolidate our status as more than just any other third country from an EU perspective, the better it will be. But the EU’s track record as a neighbour ought to counsel against simply relying on its good will. Reaching a decision among 27 is always hard, and in a system where huge efforts are made to accommodate all insiders, there is not much scope to pay heed to the needs and views of an outsider, however close. Those not in the room inevitably matter much less than those who are present.

So we ought to be taking seriously the suggestions for additional mechanisms designed to promote close and continuous dialogue between Britain and the EU27, whether individually or collectively. These range from an Anglo-German Treaty of Friendship (called for recently by Norbert Röttgen of the CDU and the Conservative Tom Tugendhat) to the much more ambitious notion of involving the UK in the European Security Council proposed by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. All such structures will have their flaws. And none can wholly replace the voice at Europe’s top table that has been lost as a result of Brexit. But an active engagement with several schemes along these lines would signal that the UK is not indifferent to what happens on its doorstep, and wants as far as is possible to remain involved.

Equally importantly, the UK government needs to ensure that its posturing in the run-up to (and during) the negotiations over new trade arrangements with the EU does not send the EU a message of UK indifference – even hostility – or suggest a desire to diverge strongly from the European norm. Setting out a maximalist starting position, and trying to show your interlocutor that ultimately you have alternatives and can walk away, may be normal negotiating tactics. But they can easily become counterproductive to any effort to retain British influence in and over the EU if they sound too much like an aggressive affirmation of Britain’s detachment. Can we really go on claiming to be close and friendly to our former partners, if we suggest, as did Johnson last week, that our future commercial ties with them could be organised on a comparable basis to those between the EU and Australia? The mood music around the trade negotiations will also influence the wider political relationship, with the result that if we allow too deep a commercial chasm to develop, or even suggest that we wouldn’t mind too much if it did, the likelihood of preserving strong political ties will also be seriously diminished.


As a sizeable and wealthy European country, Britain ought to go on having an important voice in the debate about the continent’s future. Indeed – Brexit notwithstanding – such involvement remains vital both for us and for the rest of Europe. Our European neighbours would expect and want no less. But making certain that we retain some influence when so many of the crucial decisions will be discussed and decided in a forum in which we are no longer represented, will not necessarily be easy. [...]

Full column on LSE blog


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