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No wonder that the increasingly difficult search for common values threatens European as well as transatlantic cohesion. Just before Davos the German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel articulated an increasingly common refrain from within Western Europe: “In the past, we could rely on the French, the British, and especially the Americans, to assert our interests in the world. We have always criticised the Americans for being the global police . . . but we are now seeing what happens when the US pulls back. There is no such thing as a vacuum in international politics. If the US leaves the room, other powers step in.” He was referring to the current paradox of US foreign policy: structurally everything looks the same but if you look more closely purpose and values are being eroded and this is being exploited by the principal challengers to liberal democracy. As the American commentator Daniel Drezner noted, when the leader of the most powerful country embraces a vulgar form of realism, seeing the world as a Hobbesian arena of self-interest rather than a “global community”, it all but guarantees reciprocity by everyone else. This new reality was not lost on Gabriel. Buried in his critique of Trump was an acknowledgement that the future for Germany, and by implication the EU, will have to embrace a form of “self-help” that dispassionately prioritises interests over values. As he put it, “If you focus solely on values, you won’t find success in a world where others are relentlessly pursuing their interests. In a world full of meat-eaters, vegetarians have a tough time.”

The UK’s Brexiteers still loudly proclaim themselves to be Trumpian meat-eaters. Indeed, the whole point of the Brexit project was to disengage from pan-European institutions and values to better pursue the UK’s direct interests. The implementation of Brexit is still proving internally divisive for both parties and the burden of a coordinated policy plan has yet to emerge. We are no closer to knowing what post-Brexit Britain will really look like as we edge closer to the “no-deal” precipice. Jacob Rees-Mogg asserted that the “UK will become a vassal state” if the Article 50 timetable is not extended in March. This has become an acutely accurate observation in the realm of defence. Leaks suggest that our Brexit negotiators are trying to skip the transition phase and move directly to a new security and defence relationship the day after exit.

Despite President Macron’s high-profile January visit to the UK, during which he heralded a new era of Franco-British bilateral military cooperation, it is France that is the most vociferous opponent of the UK’s involvement in European defence. Under Macron France has rapidly increased its defence spending with the most likely explanation being that she intends to exploit Brexit in order to replace the UK as the key pillar of European defence within Nato. Whatever form Brexit takes Britain’s future role as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe can no longer be taken for granted.
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