December 14, 2020

“Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”; But What Is the Way? The UK’s Post-Brexit Future

Postimees/Scanpix
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited soldiers at Tapa, Estonia a year ago.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited soldiers at Tapa, Estonia a year ago.

Brexit has undoubtedly been an important development for Estonia and the other Baltic states—Latvia and Lithuania. To my surprise, the Estonian media has followed some of the smallest hooks and nooks in the Brexit negotiations, testifying to the close relationship between Estonia and the UK.

The UK is one of the most important international partners for the north-eastern corner of Europe. The Baltic states and the UK have similar views on Russia, defence, EU enlargement, transatlantic relations and economic ideology. Thatcherism has been written into the DNA of Estonia’s economic policy since the 1990s, with then prime minister Mart Laar a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher. In addition, the UK’s voice as a vehement supporter of the EU’s single market and the importance of competition in economics tied the countries even more.

In foreign policy, the three Baltic states consider the UK a like-minded ally vis-à-vis Russia and defence, agreeing on the need to enhance military capabilities and to be ready to fight a “classical war” in the forests and swamps of Estonia, for example. A rubber stamp on these shared interests is the stationing of British soldiers in Tapa, a small town in Estonia, where the atmosphere on Sunday evenings in the local pizza restaurant is reminiscent of a British pub.

The UK’s soft power has become engrained in the lives of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. TV shows like Midsomer Murders and Poirot have built a perception of the UK that can be found in some parts of the island nation, but arguably do not reflect the whole country. The UK’s universities welcome many high school graduates from the region and some Baltic-rooted companies have made London their first or second home.

Thus, the Baltic states’ primary interest is to have as close a relationship as possible between the UK and the EU. But not at any price. While supporting the Brits is important, the EU will take priority. Assessing bilateral relationships will depend on the state of politics in the EU. It has yet to be seen to what extent developments in Brussels will affect bilateral relations with the UK. However, London’s insistence in the negotiations on maintaining the gap between the EU and the UK is a sign of potentially difficult times ahead.

How the UK will relate to the region is currently an open question. The Baltic states and the Nordics would not like to see the formation of a so-called E3 between the UK, France and Germany. At the same time, the Nordics and the Baltics would not mind the UK moving closer to the regional Nordic-Baltic Eight format (NB8). However, this raises the question what kind of a foreign-policy player is the UK going to be?

“Global Britain” is a term that still needs to be filled with substance. A tiny glimpse is offered by the UK government’s recent Spending Review 2020. The UK is reducing its commitments in the field of development and increasing its defence spending, especially in investment in new areas such as cyber defence, space forces and artificial intelligence. This is a sign that the UK is continuing its efforts in the realm of defence, which is central to international cooperation in the region. But that is all.

While the Baltic states want to support the UK and its post-EU project, the lack of direction and vision from London makes this genuinely difficult. The UK may be able to prove that, in a globalised and increasingly power-driven world, going it alone serves its interests better than going together with its European partners. However, it is unclear what those interests are and how like-minded and supportive allies can endorse them.

This is where the Baltic states stand today. There is a will, but there is no way.

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