THE CHANGING FACE OF EUROPE. Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London and Director of the “UK in a Changing Europe” initiative.

This interview is also available to listen to as a podcast.

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, wants to change the trade rules with Northern Ireland with an internal market bill that is considered illegal.  Anand Menon, what is your opinion about that?

It is fundamentally counter-productive. The Brexit negotiations centred around the European Union saying we need legal guarantees as to your future behaviour in order to sign a trade deal. The British government was replying, you don’t need those legal guarantees because you can trust us not to lower our standards. The impact of this internal market bill is to further erode trust in the British on the European side. Therefore, it’s liable to ramp up the EU’s desire for precisely those legal guarantees that the British don’t want to give.

Is this going to break the deal with the EU?

The EU has said that unless the British side shift this will have very negative implications on the negotiations, and the EU will stop them and seek redress for what it sees as a flagrant breach of international law. This would have disastrous consequences, but on the EU side the assumption is that a no deal outcome will have a bigger economic impact on the UK than on the EU. A greater proportion of the UK’s trade is with the EU than the proportion of the EU’s trade with the UK.

“I would like a politics that is informed by evidence, rather than solely informed by emotion.”

Anand Menon, what are the consequences of Brexit for the UK and for Europe?

For Europe, Britain leaving makes the EU weaker. It’s lost a large member state with a significant economy and important foreign and defense policy assets. But the EU isn’t going to fall apart. People have watched how difficult Brexit has been, and taken note. Most EU members are members of the Eurozone, and if Brexit was difficult, leaving the European Union whilst changing your currency would be far, far messier. Amongst the 27 member states, some elements of European political integration become easier without the UK. But there are three massive ongoing structural problems confronting the European Union. 1) There is a need to reform the Eurozone 2) There is the problem of dealing with migration and the question of burden sharing between member states, and 3) there is the struggle between an illiberal Eastern and Central Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, and liberal Western Europe. For all of these Britain was never the problem, and was never a veto player preventing a solution. The structural problems confronting the EU are no different without Britain around the table.

For Britain, European integration was an economic project for economic objectives. Brexit will certainly have a negative economic impact on the United Kingdom in the short to medium term, and the severity of that will depend on the kind of Brexit that is agreed. Equally, Brexit leaves the United Kingdom free to govern itself as it sees fit. For instance, there is real potential for redefining agricultural policy, perhaps making it more environmentally friendly. Ultimately, for people in favour of Brexit, this was about politics, about the ability of a democratically elected national government to make its own laws. One of the implications is that the UK government will be responsible for outcomes in a far more unambiguous and direct way than when negative outcomes could be blamed on the European Union. Brexit changes the nature of UK politics and political accountability quite fundamentally.

Will Britain become a less influential country?

The UK is a medium sized power in global terms, and can forge a niche and a role that is distinctive. One of the big missing elements of the Brexit negotiations is any discussion over future foreign policy cooperation. This will come back to haunt us, because we benefited a lot from that. We don’t know what the government means by the idea of ‘Global Britain’. Does it mean Britain working with traditional Commonwealth partners like Australia and Canada, or working closely with the United States? The big unknown with the United States, of course, is who’s going to be the president come January and how keen they are going to be on working with the UK. This could be a United Kingdom that asserts its independence by leaving the European Union but then creates newer, closer ties with some of the member states, working with them bilaterally but still as closely as before. The UK is still part of the E3 that deals with Iran. All the indications are that the Foreign Secretary values that kind of cooperation, but we don’t know yet how closely the government intends to work with European partners in foreign policy matters going forward.

If Donald Trump is re-elected, will he weaken the EU and NATO?  

Donald Trump does not like the European Union and the integration project per se. He doesn’t like what he sees as European protectionism. He doesn’t like what he perceives as Europe’s failure to pay its way within NATO, but that’s slightly different from completely disliking NATO itself. In a second Trump term, I don’t see any chance of his position on the European Union shifting. This might convince Europeans that they need to work together more closely, as President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has just said in her State of the Union speech, and think about moving towards majority voting in foreign policy. A world where America can’t be trusted is a world where Europe has to act more decisively. 

What continuity is there between a Trump and a Biden presidency?

US attitudes towards China have changed fundamentally. The United States now sees China unequivocally as an adversary, whoever is in the White House. Within the UK’s governing Conservative Party there has also been a significant hardening of tone when it comes to China. The UK’s ability to work with the Europeans on this is open to doubt, not least because Germany has such close commercial ties with China. That issue potentially divides the UK from Germany, if Germany shapes the position from the European Union as well. There will be a key difference over policies towards China, because most countries of Europe, maybe France a little less, are very dependent on the Germans.

Does this mean that continental Europe may have a completely different political relationship with China than the UK or USA?

Because of those commercial ties it is absolutely possible that the UK and the United States end up in a different place to the European Union when it comes to how we deal with China.

“If Europe wants to protect its interests, it needs clearly defined and effective policies towards its neighbours.”

Anand Menon, with the possible exception of France, the two countries that dominate Middle East politics are Russia and America. Israel, the UAE and Bahrain just signed an agreement at the White House, but neither the UK nor Europe has said anything. Is the silence interesting or frightening?

It’s interesting and a little bit depressing, because Europe has interests in what happens in that nearby region, and to see its politics increasingly dominated by Russia and the United States, with Europe unable to muster even a declaratory position, is sad and self-defeating. If Europe wants to protect its interests, it needs clearly defined and effective policies towards its neighbours. That part of the world is part of Europe’s neighbourhood. Apart from it being important to solve the problems of that region itself, if we’re going to solve the problems of migration from North Africa to the European Union we have to have policies towards the region that help bring security and stability. To date, Europe has failed on this. There’s no other way of putting it.

We talk about Europe, but isn’t Europe still an abstract concept?

It’s an abstract concept, and still largely an elite concept. Europeanness hasn’t transmitted itself to voters as a whole, whose primary loyalty remains to their nation states. For all the rhetoric around ‘Global Britain’, Brexit has made the UK rather insular since the referendum. Further, you could argue that since the key vote on Syria in 2013 that David Cameron lost, the United Kingdom hasn’t had a foreign policy worthy of the name. The English nationalism behind the Brexit vote was a complaint about the United Kingdom domestically as much as it was about the European Union.

Where do you see Europe going?  

Two fundamental changes have occurred to the European Union in the period when I’ve been writing and reading about it. The Maastricht Treaty changed the European Union from being a market project to something far broader, far more political, far more intrusive into highly salient political issues at the national level; and the adoption of the Euro reinforced that trend. The European Union is still digesting those changes. A sense of European identity and a far deeper sense of community become absolutely fundamental when you’re talking about common immigration and asylum policies, common foreign policy, common currency. Europe as a political presence is trying to catch up with Europe as a treaty reality. Europe has not caught up with that as yet.

Is the pandemic reinforcing that or slowing it down?

There were signs that reluctance to intervene and to help Italy in the early stages would have a negative impact on European solidarity, but it’s too soon to say what the impact of the pandemic will be. People haven’t yet drawn their conclusions about the relative public health performance of individual member states, and the contribution, if any, that the EU has made to making those responses better. The real economic and unemployment crisis hasn’t yet hit. Individual member states are hit to different degrees, and the budget just agreed goes some way towards helping those most badly hit, but doesn’t go far enough in terms of the scale of the economic impact. The success of member states, and the European Union itself, in mitigating the worst economic fallout in those member states worst affected, will be fundamental in defining how this crisis plays out in the longer term future of Europe.

The Corona virus crisis is inevitably going to cause major damage?

It’s obviously had a significant public health impact. It might be partly positive for Europe, whose public health provision we have learned works better than in the United States, but we don’t yet know how long the economic phase is going to last. Good, speedy, effective, well-thought-out government action can help make the recovery more V shape than U shaped. We don’t know whether that action will be forthcoming, whether governments will get it right. One of the things Europe needs to watch out for are differential rates of recovery across the block. This might stoke the sorts of resentment that we saw during the financial crisis, with some countries doing better than others and the perception that those doing well were not doing enough to help those that weren’t doing so well.

But isn’t the difference between North and South just part of the way Europe is?

It is, but pro-EU Europeans have been slow to grasp the fact that if you allow economic crisis to take hold in some member states and not others, and if that leads to resentment in those states, you end up with populist governments whose impact is to slow down the workings of the European Union as a whole. Populist victories in the next Italian elections for instance wouldn’t just impact on Italy, but on the working of the European Union, because it’s in the interests of those parties to show that they are punching their weight in the Council of Europe.

Anand Menon

Atlantic Books 2008

“The ability of our societies to be cohesive going forward is going to hinge on our ability to address socio-economic inequalities.”

Anand Menon, what do you think about the distinction in our societies between the cosmopolitan people and the people who are very rooted in one place?

Openness correlates very strongly with your level of education. Perhaps we have overvalued academic and university achievements over other forms of learning and other skills to our detriment. That has led to an undervaluing of people who might not be academically bright but have other contributions to make. Some of this at least is rooted in socio-economic inequality. The map of the Brexit vote shows that the poorer parts of the country voted to leave. You hear stories from the day of the referendum about council estates, where people don’t usually vote, where there were massive queues of people waiting to cast their votes; as much against the economic status quo as anything else. The ability of our societies to be cohesive going forward is going to hinge on our ability to address those socio-economic inequalities.

Is it the same for Europe?

Yes, it is the same, and it varies. For instance, one of the things you don’t see in Germany are the same levels of regional inequalities and the same frustration with the centre that you see in both France and the UK. Germany is a decentralized country with very strong regional cities, whereas France and the United Kingdom are both heavily centralized; and so dissatisfaction focuses on the metropolitan centre, as we saw with the votes on Brexit. The levels of regional economic inequality are higher in the United Kingdom than in any other member state of the European Union.

At the end of the day, what is your vision?

I’ve always been slightly suspicious of visions. I would like a politics that is informed by evidence, rather than solely informed by emotion. The UK government seems to be better at campaigning than at governing, not always thinking through and having honest debates about the implications of proposed decisions. I’d also like to see more evidence based politics at work in terms of my vision for Europe, which I suspect will continue to do what it has done for the last decade or so, which is to muddle through without any great transformative leaps. There is no appetite for the European Union not to continue to work, amongst even the most difficult of its member states.