The aftershocks of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union continue to rattle currency and stock markets worldwide, forcing some elites to rethink whether the European project as currently construed is sustainable. It will be months before the full impact of the British “leave” vote has been fully digested, and perhaps years before we can render a definitive judgment of its impact on Britain’s economy and politics. Nonetheless, the post-Brexit opinions, predictions, graphs, and models now sloshing around editorial pages and websites are testimony to the current confusion and, depending on where one’s sympathies reside, regret or jubilation (or maybe a bit of both).
Although the effects will not be as apparent, Brexit will also impact Transatlantic security, especially Europe’s relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin is bound to draw a sense of comfort from a twin realization: Not only has U.S. attention to Europe wavered over the past decade, but the European Union itself—the key pillar of transatlantic security next to NATO—has fallen into the grip of a structural crisis the magnitude of which can no longer be papered over with high-minded rhetoric.
Since Putin came to office, his policy towards Europe has been multi-layered, with his focus on the direct application of military power being but one layer. Over the years, Moscow has leveraged its economic and financial resources, as well as its cyber, informational, and intelligence assets, to exploit the differences in how Europeans view their respective national security environments against the backdrop of a shared Russian threat assessment. Putin’s Russia has invested selectively in different sectors of Europe’s economies, reaping financial and political benefits in the process. From the start, Putin has communicated his determination to establish a sphere of privileged interest along Russia’s periphery, displaying his willingness to assert Russia’s geostrategic priorities from Europe to Central Asia and, following Russia’s entry into Syria, once more in the Middle East. On the one hand, Moscow has been a supplier of Europe’s energy and a business partner in different areas, profiting corporate and state interests across the Continent. On the other hand, it has gradually ratcheted up the pressure on individual European countries to recognize Russia’s interests, while offering inducements to others, finally punching militarily into Eastern Europe in 2014, presenting the West with a fait accompli border revision in Ukraine.
Ever since Putin assumed power in post-Soviet Russia, Moscow has sought to build its relations with Europe on a bilateral basis, for only then would its dramatically reduced power be a match for its Western counterparts. A unified and cohesive Europe has always presented the Kremlin with the problem of an unbridgeable economic power differential, leaving the Russian military, especially its nuclear component, as the only means by which it could seek to change the security equation in Europe. Although Brexit has not fundamentally altered the overall disparity between Russia and Europe more broadly, London’s decision to leave the European Union will yield an increasingly inward-looking Continent. As it continues to grapple with slow growth, migration and fiscal imbalances, Europe will need to tackle the very fundamentals of its mutual treaty obligation now that the United Kingdom is on its way out, as well as the nature of Brussels’ relations with London going forward. Small wonder that Russian media greeted Britain’s vote to leave the European Union with schadenfreude, if not also outright glee.
The change in Europe’s security relations with Russia as a result of Brexit is not likely to be felt overtly at NATO’s summit next month, but it will cast a shadow over the proceedings. In Warsaw NATO is expected to move ahead with its decision to establish a U.S. and allied rotational presence and to expand its exercise regime, sending a message of allied solidarity with its fellow frontier member-states. But NATO’s Warsaw summit declarations and its subsequent efforts to strengthen deterrence will be measured in Moscow against the backdrop of what has just happened in the UK—the clearest indication to date that a once confident Europe “whole and free and at peace” is in trouble, and that in a crisis its allegedly post-Westphalian states will act as anything but, driven as always by their particular interests and politics.
Since the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, Europe has struggled to deter Russia, all the while sending the message that it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States, ready to share equitably the burden of common security and defense. Now this avowed purpose has been called further into question, this time not by Europe’s failure to meet its NATO defense obligations or by its traditional tendency to spend on social programs over defense, but because its postwar common European project is stumbling. The EU’s political gyrations prior to Brexit—from the Greek bankruptcy, through the Eurozone crisis, to mass migration from MENA into Europe—have already taken a toll on Europe’s larger common purpose. After Brexit the regionalization of Europe’s security will accelerate, moving from the level of an unstated acknowledgement to that of an ever-more openly articulated premise. This fragmentation and growing preoccupation with one’s immediate periphery is now manifest across the Continent—from the French and Italian focus on the southern azimuth into the Mediterranean, through Norway’s growing preoccupation with the Arctic, to Poland’s “intermarium” idea, an effort to generate deeper security cooperation and regional solidarity in Central Europe from the Baltic to the Black seas. These projects are likely to come up short, both in terms of the available resources and political will to carry them through. And so as before, the United States is the defining contributor to European security at the center of the Transatlantic equation. The difference is that Washington must now also cope with the added complication of having to navigate an even less stable Europe. U.S. relations with the United Kingdom will remain strong, as Britain is still the key U.S. European ally. Perhaps a new and even deeper U.S.-British security relationship will emerge post-Brexit—but then perhaps not, as the line of confrontation between what the United Kingdom has chosen and the vision espoused by Germany require a delicate balance and the kind of attention to Europe that has been lacking in Washington of late.
Without a doubt, Europe’s tone-deaf elites bear a lot of the responsibility for what has just happened in the United Kingdom, especially when it comes to their inability to respond to the concerns of their electorate and to anticipate the consequences of larger EU decisions on the nation-state level (the ongoing popular backlash against continued MENA migration is a case in point). Nor is it a forgone conclusion that Scotland will now bolt from the UK, or that the Brits will not be able to make a go of it on their own, adapting their trade and finance to the new reality. A lot will depend on what divorce terms are negotiated in the coming months. But regardless, Brexit catches Europe and the United States in a particularly difficult time. The turmoil that the British “leave” decision has triggered—and will continue to generate in the months and years to come—leaves Europe more inward-looking, more fragmented, and ultimately more vulnerable to Russian pressure.