Brexit – A Geopolitical Perspective

The nail in the coffin for “Great” Britain?

By Peter Michel
By Peter Michel

On June 23rd, the British people will vote in a national referendum and will answer the following question; “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave?”

Whilst a seemingly straightforward question, if the British people vote through simple majority to exit the EU (dubbed “Brexit”), historians and politicians alike will reflect on this pivotal moment in the economics and geopolitics of the region for decades to come.

With polls evenly split, the Brexit debate is currently centered on the economic and trade implications for the UK. Barack Obama recently stated that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a trade deal which could take 10 years to sign. Furthermore, institutions such as the OECD, the IMF and Oxford Economics have all stated Brexit would be detrimental to the UK economy, lowering GDP growth by between 1-4%. Conversely, the “Leave” campaign has articulated that trade agreements specific to the needs of UK industry could actually spur small business and exports and preserve British jobs for British workers. Whilst an intense debate will continue regarding the economic outcome, realistically, no one knows for certain how an unprecedented exit of this size will impact the UK and the region. That said, it is fair to assume that with time the UK economy will thrive with or without the EU – trade agreements can be renegotiated, labor markets can adjust and growth can ensue. In my opinion, what is vastly more compelling is the longer term geopolitical fallout and the impact on Britain’s long term legacy and role.

In 1950, a parliamentary candidate named Margaret Thatcher (aged just 24) made a big promise. She complained the UK had become weak with a government too hesitant to exercise its international might. She stated, it was time to make Great Britain great again.

May I pose the following question: 66 years later, is Great Britain still Great?

The UK, a spirited nation that until 1997 ruled an empire, has unquestionably had a precipitous decline geopolitically. While the UK retains a seat at the top table (G7, UN Security Council, NATO), it punches above its weight with a bigger voice and role than its global position merits. The fact is Britain is a small island on the fringe of Europe with limited natural resources, the world’s 6th largest economy and 9th strongest military.

In 2001, Tony Blair stated “if [Britain is] no longer a super-power, then [it is] at least a force for good in the world”. If that is still the case, then why did the UK shy away from debt issues with Greece, avoid substantive intervention with ISIS in Syria and leave Ukraine negotiations with Putin to Germany? The answer it seems is the increasingly parochial nature of the British people – foreign policy barely surfaced during the 2015 General Election agenda. If the UK doesn’t play its part, it will lose its entire geopolitical pull and ghost into the shadows. So I ask, at what point will its legacy no longer warrant its international stature?

If Britain’s relevance dictates that Britain retains its seat at the table, then let us consider a Brexit scenario. The world has changed since European unification began – in a world dictated by large trading blocs, international bodies and political allegiances, where would a newly independent UK sit?

Interestingly, the UK has long been valuable as the lynchpin of NATO – tying North America closely to Europe. By willingly abdicating its position in the EU, the UK risks not only losing political influence with key European allies, but also risks alienating Europe. If we establish that the UK no longer has the might to remain America’s political wingman nor has the political sway in Europe, then how can the nation remain the NATO lynchpin? More importantly, what value do they provide the US and will the special relationship survive? Departing the EU could accelerate the diminution of Britain’s world stature and as the Brexit domino falls, it could start a chain of events forever pivoting Britain’s path.

One specific chain worthy of note is the issue of Scottish Independence. In the 2014 Scottish Referendum, the nationalists lost out on independence from the UK by only a 5% swing vote. Since then, there has been an enormous wave of nationalism, and the Scottish National Party led by Nicola Sturgeon won 56 of 59 seats (up from six) in the 2015 General Election. The Scottish (as higher beneficiaries of the EU) are widely seen to be more supportive of the EU. Mrs. Sturgeon has reiterated that if the Scottish vote to remain in the EU, but the UK gains a Brexit majority, this would count as a “material change of circumstance” with Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, warranting a new Scottish independence vote. Second time round, Scotland will surely leave. Needless to say, breaking the 1707 Articles of Union (founding of the UK) will have long and material impacts on the remaining UK’s economy, military and nuclear deterrent – further ghosting Britain into the shadows.

Those voting to schism may get more than they bargained for. Will the world look back and see June 23rd as the day Britain released itself from the bureaucratic shackles of the EU and regained control of its borders or will they simply see the beginning of the end for “Great” Britain.

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Peter (HBS ‘17) is an RC and a proud member of Section A (woo Pandas!). In his capacity as a social chair for the section, he spends a lot of time organizing large scale (and often intricate) social events. Outside this role, he is also a Co-President of the HBS Europe Club and a British Friends of HBS Fulbright Scholar. Prior to HBS, Peter worked in London at Merrill Lynch and then Bain Capital, and will be returning to the latter post MBA. Ever since his undergraduate days at Oxford, Peter his been fervently interested in international politics.