Brexit Institute News

What Brexit and Trump Had in Common: Sovereignty at All Costs

Ian Cooper (DCU Brexit Institute)

The Donald Trump presidency has come to its ignominious end. It did so just a few weeks after the UK fully left the EU, following an 11-month post-Brexit transition. This draws to a close two parallel cycles that began in 2016 with the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US election of Trump, which invites retrospective comparison between two movements.

Whereas some leading Brexiters such as Nigel Farage eagerly embraced Trump, the more respectable, Conservative wing of the Brexit movement sought to maintain some distance from the uncouth president and the blatant nativism of his movement. Yet even if we leave aside any comparison of the personal character of Donald Trump with e.g. Boris Johnson, or in the anti-immigrant populism in evidence among many Trump and Brexit supporters, there is one area in which the similarity is uncanny – foreign policy. In both cases, it might be described as the pursuit of sovereignty – a state unfettered by international obligations – at all costs.

The Trump Doctrine, such as it was – for it was largely inchoate and irrational, based on the impulses of one erratic man – was to reject, whenever possible, all international institutions and obligations. The Brexit Doctrine, such as it was – and here I refer not to the mere fact of the UK leaving the EU but its leaders’ choices made about how it should be done – was to reject, whenever possible, all European institutions and obligations.

The Trumpian reflex was to withdraw from international arrangements – the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization – even when cooperation was manifestly in the self-interest of the US. Similarly, Brexit has led to the UK unnecessarily exiting from European institutions from which it benefited. The main difference is that while Trump reflexively rejected anything with “World” in the title, the Brexiters reject anything with “European” in the title.

It may be objected that Brexit was unlike Trump because it did not entail the withdrawal from many international organizations but merely one – the European Union. However, this fails to account for the fact that the EU is a vast complex of institutions, agencies and programmes. The Brexiters, in their zeal for a hard Brexit, were determined to wrench the UK out of as many of them as possible.

The UK could have remained in the Single Market – following the Norway model – but this would have meant accepting free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and so it was rejected. The UK could have remained tied to the Customs Union – this was the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May – but then the UK would not have had the full authority to conduct an independent trade policy, and so this was rejected.

The resulting EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) agreed on Christmas Eve was a thin deal, a hard Brexit in all but name. It does enable trade between the UK and the EU on a zero-tariff, zero-quota basis. But as many UK exporters are now discovering to their cost, it does cause considerable trade friction by erecting numerous non-tariff barriers in the form of paperwork, red tape VAT, customs, shipping and other costs. These may well prove crippling for small businesses, that are left with the choice of giving up on the EU market, moving into it, or going out of business.

Yet the damage of Brexit goes beyond trading arrangements. The UK’s unwillingness to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice means that it is now formally outside many of the security agencies and programmes – the European Police Agency (Europol), the European Arrest Warrant, the Shengen Information System – which had hitherto kept Britons safe, and any replacement to these is either inferior or yet to be negotiated.

The extent of the UK’s withdrawal from Europe is Trumpian: it is willful and blinkered to the verge of being spiteful. Perhaps the most telling example is a small one, albeit one that is near to this author’s heart – the European University Institute (EUI). The EUI is a jewel of European higher education, an elite university in Florence, Italy. The EUI is an intergovernmental organization in its own right that is separate from, though supported by, the EU. Brexit did not require leaving the EUI, but the UK left anyway. The main consequence of this is to deny an opportunity to future British students of great talent and promise.

Similarly, but on a much larger scale, the UK has decided to pull out of the Erasmus student exchange programme, breaking Boris Johnson’s previous promise to remain in the scheme. This closes off an opportunity for thousands of British students to study in the EU and thousands of EU students to study in the UK. The stated reason for this decision was to save money. But the Erasmus programme was also targeted by Brexiters because part of its mission was to promote the ideal of European unity. (Full disclosure: the DCU Brexit Institute is the proud recipient of Erasmus+ funding for the BRIDGE Jean Monnet Network.)

Brexit has led the UK away from the traditional British values of pragmatism and fair play into a world of pettiness and bad faith. This was most apparent last September when a minister announced in parliament that certain provisions of the Internal Market bill would break international law. (Thankfully, these have since been abandoned.) Most recently, the UK refuses to grant full diplomatic status to the EU ambassador in London, a petulant move that is similar to a diplomatic snub of the EU made by the Trump administration in 2018-2019.

The UK could have accepted the result of the 2016 referendum and formally left the EU while working to salvage what it could of its institutional ties. The fact that it cut these ties in the pursuit of the purest form of sovereignty looks less like statecraft and more like a Trumpian act of vandalism.

But of course there is a key difference between the Trump Doctrine and the Brexit Doctrine, in that the latter is much more difficult to reverse. Among the first acts of the Biden presidency was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and to halt the US’s exit from the World Health Organization. It will not be so easy for the UK to rebuild its relationship with EU institutions after such an abrupt rupture. Trump is for four years, but Brexit is forever.

Ian Cooper  is a Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute