Why you should care
Because it’s never too late to never give in.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Ten days after the Brits voted to leave the European Union (EU), many of them now think they erred and millions are pushing for a new vote. Such buyer’s remorse is forgivable, because the victorious Leave campaigners told some real whoppers — for instance, they exaggerated the amount of money the U.K. contributed to the EU and asserted, wrongly, that the return of these contributions would offset any Brexit-related losses. With astonishingly bald irresponsibility, the Leave campaigners took all this back right after the vote.
But my conviction that Brexit needs rethinking flows from more than these falsehoods. In fact, it reflects my whole personal history, from my student days through my professional life as a senior intelligence officer who dealt with British counterparts. My whole life through, Britain oriented itself globally and opened itself to the rest of the world. At the same time, Europe has tended toward integration and cooperation. What I learned over these decades about Europe and Britain is very much at odds with Britain’s decision.
As a graduate student in Italy in the mid-1960s, I studied with a cross section of Europe’s youth — including Brits, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Belgians, Austrians, French and Poles. They were all born during the darkest days of World War II, and a purpose of my school, the Johns Hopkins European campus, was to bring European youth together with Americans to help move past that hate-filled era. The nascent integration movement inspired my young European contemporaries, lifting their vision beyond the generations who had plunged the world into two global conflicts.
It worked. And the ever-present strategic backdrop came from the six countries then coming together in a free-trade zone called the European Community (EC) — the core of what became the 28-member EU. Many of our professors, some survivors of the Holocaust, had campaigned for federation from the day the guns fell silent. For them, and for many of us students — so conscious of a continent ablaze just 20 years earlier — the young EC had an almost religious significance.
Now comes the Brexit, with its potential to inspire other countries to flake on the EU. The British example is fueling similar sentiment in at least a half dozen countries. To be sure, the EU itself bears some responsibility because of its now overbearing bureaucracy and welter of regulations that are often insensitive to local preferences (“Hands off our bangers!” read one U.K. headline when, years ago, the EU issued some FDA-like sausage regulations). But that is a matter of reform rather than abandonment.
I say this because I believe Europe will inevitably fall back into some form of conflict if the EU breaks up. Probably not armed conflict — one can at least hope — but certainly heightened nationalism, resentments and clashing interests. Without the critical balance Britain provides, Germany will be the dominant power, and many countries will chafe under that, regardless of how wisely Berlin leads. That kind of Europe will not be as predictable and reliable a partner for the United States or easily held together in NATO. And this comes at a time when the U.S. desperately needs cohesion among its traditionally closest allies to deal with challenges from Europe’s backyard as well as the Middle East and global terrorism.
In other words, the EU’s work is not done. Better to reform it than kill it.
In Britain itself, Brexit flies in the face of everything I came to admire about a bold and outward-oriented U.K. As an intelligence officer dealing with British counterparts, I came to know the U.K. as one of the few partner nations with an expansive and sophisticated global view — never one that backed away from a challenge or focused inward. It is not much of an exaggeration to say American intelligence learned much of our trade from Britain — remember, America had no national intelligence service before WWII. In the ensuing years, what made the so-called “special relationship” so special was the U.K.’s insightful global perspective – making it one of the few countries that could valuably inform the thinking of American policymakers and intelligence officers.
If Britain persists along the Brexit path, it will not necessarily change the elements of a very strong intelligence partnership, tightly integrated over the years and embedded in a close alliance with three other English-speaking Commonwealth countries. But American officials can be forgiven if Brexit causes worry about whether Britain’s traditionally strong internationalism could weaken, or whether some long-standing elements of its foreign policy are changing. As Robert Kaplan recently observed, a wise British policy for centuries has been to oppose dominance by any one power on the European continent.
None of what I’m saying is meant to censure Britain’s policymakers or voters. They represent an independent and sovereign country entitled to chart its own course. But it is also wrong to say this is none of our business, given our intertwined history and interests.
Britain gave us modern history’s greatest statesman, Sir Winston Churchill. We cannot know how Churchill would have voted in 2016, but he did say in 1949 that Britain’s interests and the Commonwealth’s were in a United Europe. And I recall what Churchill in 1941 said to students at Harrow School: “… never, never, never … give in.”
There’s heart to be taken there for the millions of Britons who are demanding a reconsideration of Brexit: This is not the time to give in.