Weighing the pros and cons of Britain’s exit from the EU, it’s clear that such a move would have significant implications for Russia, both economically and geopolitically.
British politician and leader of the UKIP party Nigel Farage holds up a placard as he launches his party's campaign for Britain to leave the EU. Photo: AP
On June 23, Great Britain will hold a referendum on that country’s continued membership in the European Union. Should the British people vote to leave the European Union, a huge shake-up is in store for Europe, which will entail a revision of the EU’s relations with Great Britain, and the beginning of a new stage in the development of the European project.
On the other hand, a vote in favor of maintaining the country’s membership does not mean the status quo will remain when it comes to relations between Brussels and London. In February of this year, an agreement was signed between the EU and Britain, which was intended to prevent the British from leaving the Union. This agreement contains a wide range of concessions from the EU, which will come into force only after the referendum, when the people vote in favor of the preservation of their country’s membership.
This is what London wanted right from the start – the confirmation of its special status and privileges. When the referendum topic was just beginning to unwind, it was clear to everyone that this was just an attempt to exact concessions from Brussels, and no one in the government of England was seriously thinking about breaking with the EU.
However, what began as a regular demarche of London against the Brussels bureaucracy, ultimately resulted in a quite probable exit of this country from the EU, which journalists have dubbed “Brexit.” It turned out that the British government got itself involved in a very dangerous game – to get concessions within the framework of the European Union or undertake an unpredictable path out of it.
This unpredictability of future developments is leading analysts in all countries to forecast various future scenarios. It has become obvious that Brexit is no longer just about relations between London and Brussels, as a break could potentially lead to revisions of various international agreements and a rebalancing of power within the international arena.
Does the Kremlin support Brexit?
When it comes to Brexit, the Kremlin has assumed a wait-and-see position, refraining from voicing any official statements of support or caution. As the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, stated, “Russia has nothing to do with Brexit. We are not involved in this process. We do not have any interest in this.”
The Russian Embassy in London confirmed that Moscow has no position on the problem of Brexit. Russian state media is split almost 50/50 – between those being for and those being against Brexit, and the relatively limited media coverage of this subject reflects the low interest of Russians in this topic.
Russian government officials also have been sending confusing signals. Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs Alexey Pushkov suggested that, should the United Kingdom leave the EU, it would need new friends to replace the rejected Europe, and Russia could become one of its new friends. This position however, has not stopped him from criticizing England as the main opponent of Russia in Europe.
In the absence of an official Russian position, it’s worth analyzing the pros and cons of Britain’s exit from the European Union from the perspective of Russia’s interests.
Pros of Brexit
#1: Britain’s exit would make it easier to remove sanctions on Russia
It’s impossible to ignore the role being played by the intransigence of London in its fight against “Russian aggression.” It is quite possible that, if the UK leaves, a pragmatic approach towards Russia would prevail in the EU, making it easier to lift sanctions on Russia.
The differences between the interests of countries of the EU have led to a situation where Brussels has to put pressure on some of its members in an effort to maintain in place the sanctions against Moscow, which many do not support. Without Britain out of the picture, this could lead to both the softening of the sanctions and their gradual phasing out, and a return to “business as usual” (i.e., relations based on common goals and interests, without any ideological component).
#2: Britain’s exit would reduce the influence of the U.S. on the EU
Without Britain, Brussels might be be able to work on deepening integration, i.e., begin to build a more tight and homogeneous union, which will have the resources to distance itself from U.S. patronage, and move towards a strategic partnership with Moscow.
Britain has always played a pivotal role in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, and with Britain out of the EU, the ties that bind Europe to the U.S. could be weakened.
#3: Britain’s exit would weaken NATO, while strengthening Russia’s position.
British Prime Minister David Cameron in his speeches has repeatedly noted that such a situation would benefit the Kremlin, because it would bring discord into the camp of the Western coalition that opposes Russia.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond spoke even more bluntly. “None of our allies wants us to leave the EU – not Australia, not New Zealand, not Canada, not the US. In fact, the only country, if the truth is told, that would like us to leave the EU is Russia. That should probably tell us all we need to know,” he said.
Cons of Brexit
#1: Britain’s exit might lead to direct confrontation with Russia
Brussels has always played a role in softening the traditionally Russophobic sentiments of the British ruling establishment. Once Britain leaves the EU, the first action of London outside the pan-European policy would be the tightening of confrontation with Russia, and the expansion of sanctions.
#2: Britain’s exit would imply an even greater role for Germany
A stronger role for Germany may have certain advantages for the Kremlin, as there would no longer be any need to negotiate simultaneously with a large number of different countries. However, no one can guarantee that Germany will want to negotiate, because after 2014, past friendships are now only distant memories.
Against the background of the general instability in Europe, the role of NATO may acquire a new value. The Alliance is increasingly postulating its primary goal – increasing confrontation with the growing power and influence of Moscow. This will lead to an increase in the volume of military forces of the Alliance stationed in Europe, new military bases near the borders of Russia, as well as the unfolding of a new arms race, which could lead to the collapse of the currently declining Russian economy.
#3: Britain’s exit could provoke an aggravation of old regional conflicts
The Scots, should England leave the EU, are threatening to carry out their dream of secession, and the government of Northern Ireland is warning about a possible resumption of former conflict in Ireland. The English case may be contagious for the problematic regions in other countries – Spanish Catalonia, Belgian Flanders, French Corsica, and others. The result will be increasing conflict situations on the European continent, which have the potential of spilling over into neighboring territories.
Crisis of European integration
Brexit has become a defining issue. It clearly demonstrates a crisis in European integration, the fate of which until recently seemed secure. One way or another, this referendum on secession will give a new impetus to the future development of the EU. The EU will be forced to travel on one of two trajectories: remain with Britain and search for new compromises or move into a new reality, where the country’s withdrawal from the EU is possible, and even desirable, if it leads to the internal strengthening of the Union.
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Both of these scenarios contain certain advantages for Russia. However, the choice remains with the British people, while the main challenge for the Kremlin now is to develop the most effective strategy, no matter how the referendum turns out.