BY DANIEL KAWCZYNSKI MP
One of the most important arguments that emerged during the 2016 referendum campaign was that a vote to leave the European Union was not a vote to leave Europe. Whilst the United Kingdom is stepping out of the ever-expanding regulatory empire of Brussels, we are not turning our back on our responsibilities to our friends on the continent. The fortunes of Britain have been deeply entwined with the fate of Europe for centuries – that isn’t about to change.
But there is more to Europe than the EU. Whilst of course we must strive for good relations with Brussels, we must never forget that the remaining Member States remain (for the moment) separate nations, with their own histories and their own agendas.
Brexit is an opportunity to reassess the UK’s role in European affairs and re-engage on our own terms. And there is no better place to start than the Visegrád Group.
This is an alliance between Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary (known as ‘the V4’), who have come together to cooperate on matters including military, economic, cultural, and energy.
It is also a great opportunity for Britain to forge a strong bilateral partnership, one based not just on trade but on a shared commitment to NATO and western values – not to mention deep social links forged by the over a million Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians living and working in the UK.
Top of the agenda should be the danger posed by Russia. After carving territory out of Georgia, annexing the Crimea, and continuing to prop up puppet regimes in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s intentions towards the post-War settlement are not in doubt.
For countries which suffered under the Soviet yoke mere decades ago, this is not an abstract threat. Yet they too often feel that their European partners are letting them down.
Germany, the most influential Member State, not only chronically shirks its NATO spending commitments but, having needlessly shuttered its nuclear power programme, is actively colluding with Moscow on the Nord Stream II pipeline. In fact Gerhard Schröder, who strongly advocated for the pipeline whilst Chancellor of Germany, now works for Gazprom!
The V4 nations, especially Poland, are deeply concerned about a project which will increase European dependence on Russian gas whilst bypassing Eastern Europe, and are already working with the Americans to develop an alternative. Britain should give those efforts its full support.
A strong British alliance, tied into the broader Atlantic system, would also provide the V4 with an alternative to potential domination by either Russia or Germany. For obvious historical reasons, they are extremely sensitive about either prospect.
Several of the V4 governments have been criticised for being too close to Russia. But it is understandable that they give short shrift to such complaints from Germany and its allies inside the EU given Berlin’s own closeness to Moscow. A London-Visegrad partnership, by contrast, would give us a chance to secure the V4’s position in the democratic West with an alliance untainted by the shadows of recent European history.
There would be other dividends for Britain too. Alliances forged outside the structures of the EU could still be brought to bear inside it: having more friendly voices in the room when British affairs are discussed in Brussels would be no bad thing.
We could also deepen our commercial relationships. The V4 already have “a relatively high level of goods trade with the UK”, according to one report – for example, the UK is Poland’s third-largest export partner, importing almost $16bn worth of good a year. Building on this could unlock billions of pounds worth of new trade and investment opportunities.
Not only that, but the V4’s defence integration programme is a great opportunity for Britain’s world-class defence industry – especially at a time when possible cuts to our own budgets mean shrinking demand here at home.
And again, this relationship would be starting from a position of equal partners: the V4 nations combined have a population of 64.3 million, versus 66.6 million here in Britain. There would be no question of our pursuing the sort of neo-imperial commercial policies being aggressively pursued by the Chinese.
Critics of Brexit are fond of pointing out that the United Kingdom is no longer a ‘great power’. But this overlooks that being a middle power has its uses. Many countries are for sound historical reasons very wary of being dominated by a ‘great power’. This is especially true in Eastern Europe.
Outside the EU, Britain has a chance to forge a new role as an ambassador for the Atlantic system who can work with the V4, and others, on friendly and most importantly equal terms. We must seize this opportunity.
Daniel Kawczynski MP is the Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham.