There was a time when we observed European, US and other Western elections from two perspectives. One was how the victory of a particular individual, party or faction signalled a shift from right to left, or vice versa, or from one shade of right or left to another shade of right or left. We often used such terms as “centre right” and “centre left” to underscore the fact that the differences between these shades were merely a matter of degree and that changes would largely hinge on the personality of a prime minister elect or a new foreign minister. The second perspective, for us in the Arab world in particular, was how the newcomers to power stood with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Did they advocate the need to solve the conflict or did they subscribe to the school that holds that it’s best to keep a distance from a conflict that defies a solution?
But times have changed — a lot. “Change” no longer means a swing between right and left, or as these are expressed in Western terminologies depending on the system of government and how it evolved in a particular country, between Labour and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, etc. Today, the entire political pendulum has changed. Instead of from right to left, it swings from right to extreme right. Moreover, it is no longer possible to speak in terms of degrees from centre right to the far right. The conventional right wings in the US (the Republican Party) and the UK (the Conservatives) have also shifted to a new spectrum that includes extremists who are revolting against their country’s institutions. They seek to exploit the democratic order and its electoral systems in order to attain power and then to use the instruments of power and the opportunism of politicians in order establish new rules for the conduct of domestic and foreign policy beneath their particular banners.
In general, the extremists are rebelling against three things, starting with liberalism as it had evolved by the end of the second decade of the 21st century. They want to roll it way back until all that is left are the legitimate democratic mechanisms that brought them to power. Secondly, they despise everything connected to the left and socialism which, at best, they regard as an aberration, and at worst as a form of treason. Their third bugbear is globalisation, the various multinational organisations and institutions that it generated and, more importantly, the array of international conventions for dealing with contemporary global problems from migration to global warming.
The election of Boris Johnson as head of the British Conservative Party and consequently prime minister has roots in certain historical phenomena. Firstly, post-World War II Britain regarded Europe and its movement towards union with considerable scepticism and as a project doomed to fail. Secondly, Britain’s foreign political realm up to that point was predominantly transatlantic, shaped by the “special” relationship with the US on the basis of common language and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Also, after the War of 1812 and the US exit from the British Empire before that, there remained the shared experience and the blood they shed together in two world wars.
The new British prime minister is a far cry from James Cameron, the last “pre-Brexit” prime minister. He is also different from Theresa May whom he succeeded and who had assumed the task of steering the UK out of the EU in accordance with the principle of a “soft exit” whereby Britain would divest itself of its responsibilities within the EU framework but retain a close relationship with Europe. Johnson is not at all like Jeremy Hunt, his rival for the premiership. Hunt, whose approach and methods are not all that different from May’s, met with a “landslide” defeat by British standards. With Johnson’s election, Britain reverted to how it stood in the 19th century: a non-European country that intervened in the continent only to maintain balances of power, especially between France and Germany. Now that these two powers have joined forces, the balances of power to maintain are between them, on the one hand, and the rest of Europe, such as Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe whose accession to the EU had been supported by Britain, despite opposition from other major European powers.
The return to the past revives the European debate that emerged following the end of the Cold War. When Britain joined the European Community in 1973, after seeming to have overcome its old anti-European complexes, it became, together with Germany and France, part of the triumvirate that steered Europe from “community” to “union”. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were two schools of thought as to how to proceed with the union. One favoured deepening it, the other expanding it. “Deepening it” meant taking one of the world’s most important political engineering processes in international relations further forward in the direction of a “United States of Europe” by means of such measures as the establishment of the European Central Bank, the introduction of a common currency (the Euro), and the creation of a geopolitical and customs border between Europe and other countries through the establishment of the Schengen zone.
“Expansion” meant annexing, in accordance with the established accession procedures, the countries that had emerged from the Warsaw Pact and were freed from communist and Soviet Union control. London was opposed to deepening and in favour of expansion. It saw the EU through a strategic lens. The EU was a bulwark against Soviet Russian imperialism and annexation was a means to secure the future of Europe in the framework of the competition with the new Russia. Perhaps, too, Britain felt that expansion was a means to keep Germany from monopolising the European helm by virtue of its economic clout. Ultimately, the EU proceeded in both directions at once, which gave rise to a number of contradictions. Above all, expansion cost a lot and it triggered needless sensitivities and difficulties with Russia. Britain, for its part, chose to remain outside the EU Central Bank, the Eurozone and Schengen. It simultaneously worked to develop a special relationship with the “New Europe”, which is to say the Eastern European countries that yearned for close relations with NATO.
The election of Boris Johnson will not only take Britain completely out of the EU and towards a new transatlantic alliance with the US under Donald Trump, it will also reshape the network of US-European relations. In the place of a relationship based on NATO and the EU, there will emerge a British-US alliance leading a network of right-wing extremists some of whom have risen to power in Poland, Hungary, Italy and more recently Greece while their counterparts in France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere are expanding their bases in parliament. Or at least this is the scenario that the Trump-Johnson alliance has its sights set on. But the path towards this vision will be far from easy for either of them. In the UK, the story is not over yet. It will not be long before new elections that will put Britain to another test. Also, the very future of the UK is in the balance, as both Scotland and Northern Ireland want to remain in the EU. On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump will not be there forever, even if he does win the next presidential elections.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turning away from Europe