Beyond the emotional scenes of Afghans locked out of Kabul airport or – unbelievably – clinging to the wheels of an airborne United States Air Force jet, lies a political wake-up call.
Post-Brexit Britain is not quite the global superpower it envisioned itself. As US forces left the ground in Kabul, the UK was left wide-eyed, confronted with the reality that the unreliability of the US meant a need to strengthen partnerships elsewhere. In a melting pot of geopolitical instabilities, rhetoric of one-upmanship and self-sufficiency on both sides of the UK-EU divorce undermines the urgent need of both neighbours to uphold a united multinational front and a productive relationship driven by shared interests.
The UK’s Integrated Review in 2021 of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy makes the clear suggestion that the United States is ‘our most important bilateral relationship’. Yet the events in Afghanistan call that relationship into question. The UK’s obligation to follow close at the heels of the US withdrawal timetable – despite urging President Biden to delay – leaves a troubling aftertaste across Europe, who have defined their international defence and security in conjunction with the US and NATO.
Perhaps this partly informs the drive towards the EU’s Strategic Compass (SC), due to be published in March 2022. Alongside reiterating its commitments to NATO and the UN, the EU is expected to emphasise the importance of bilateral partnerships with the likes of the UK, Japan, and South Korea, as well as the US. At the same time, however, the SC serves as an instrument of strengthening the leadership of Brussels on the world stage, recharacterising the EU in geopolitical terms.
How helpful is this striving, from both the UK and the EU, towards ‘global leader’ status? Concern at the impotence of the UK and EU in the absence of the US ought to serve as a sober reminder of what nations have in common, rather than what drives them apart. Regardless of their future relationship, the UK and EU remain mutually and inextricably reliant: on subsea pipelines for oil and gas, on fibre cables for communications, or on overseas support, to name a few.
Just this summer, the shared experience in the UK, Germany, Greece and Switzerland (amongst others) of extreme flooding and heatwaves reemphasises their proximity and shared vulnerabilities – even if new border laws make the Continent feel that bit further away. When it comes to defence and security capabilities, are resources better pooled together than compared from afar?
Five years of seesawing negotiations have inevitably left policymakers and citizens exhausted. While it is important that both parties now establish their own identities as independent players on the world stage, too often their shared concerns – whether biodiversity, trade flows, or health standards – have been lost in debates over fishery quotas or social standards. Important and intrinsic debates these may be, but deadlock ensues when policy is detached from principle.
The crisis in Afghanistan this year will, and should, first and foremost cause huge concern for those Afghans left behind. But away from that tragedy, it might also serve as a reminder of what is often forgotten in the messiness of battling over a new UK-EU relationship – the value of unity and strength in cooperation when defining our future interests and priorities.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.