By Luke MeGee, CNN
After 1,316 days of political turmoil, the UK now stands alone as the first nation to have ever left the European Union.
It has ended the careers of two Prime Ministers and left the very future of the United Kingdom in question. Scotland’s case for independence is becoming harder to ignore while Britain’s perceived selling out of Northern Ireland has played into the hands of those wishing to see Irish unification.
That’s just the politics: Britain’s economic future and place in the world have not been this uncertain since the end of the World War II.
Speaking to the nation on the eve of January 31 an hour before Brexit finally happened, Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that the country was divided: “For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come. And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss … I understand all those feelings, and our job as the government — my job — is to bring this country together now and take us forward.”
Johnson has political capital to spend. His election landslide last year means he has the power to start rebuilding the UK in his own image. It also means he can remold the country’s position on the international stage. And in a world of shifting geopolitics, whatever path Johnson decides to walk will have implications beyond Britain’s borders.
The key question that needs answering in the next 11 months: Will the UK stick with its European neighbors and their multilateral view of the world? Or will it drift across the Atlantic and team up with an increasingly confrontational American foreign policy?
Why 11 months? Because, according to the deal Britain signed with the EU, this Brexit transition period ends on December 31, and whatever deal the two parties have reached on their future relationship — if any — kicks in.
Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, says that Johnson faces a huge strategic choice: “For decades, the foundation of British foreign policy has rested on two pillars: the UK has been an influential member of the EU; it is also part of the transatlantic alliance, with NATO and the US at its core.”
In an ideal world, post-Brexit Britain would now be free to forge new economic relations with both the EU and the US, while maintaining a diplomatic equilibrium that allows it to be a power broker between the two.
But as Trump’s America drifts further from the European agenda on so many big issues — from climate change to Iran engagement with China — any decision Johnson makes favoring one party risks straining relations with the other.
Johnson is already attempting to navigate the China minefield that stretches across Europe.
The EU’s China problem is acute. On one hand, stagnating European economies benefit from Chinese investment. On the other, that investment comes with the potential security risk of allowing state-owned Chinese companies to operate in Europe. And that has implications for Europe’s intelligence-sharing allies, such as the US.
Earlier last week, Johnson’s government decided that it would allow the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei to build part of the UK’s 5G network, despite serious security concerns. The government said Huawei’s role in the project would be restricted to areas that meant it wasn’t a risk to the UK.
One person unlikely to be happy about this is US President Donald Trump. In his economic war with China, Trump is looking for friends. And as the UK leaves the EU, desperate to sign trade deals — especially with the US — he sees an opportunity to pull the UK into his orbit.
Trump seemed distracted as the news broke on Tuesday and it’s possible that London’s assurances were enough for the President. However Johnson chooses to handle the Huawei issue going forward, officials in both Brussels are DC will be paying very close attention. And whatever decisions he takes, it creates an immediate short-term problem for Europe’s own power-balancing act between the US and China.
“The EU’s top priority is balanced relations between the big two: China and America,” says Steven Blockmans, head of foreign affairs at the European Center for Policy Studies. “If the UK has a closer relationship with either, it could create problems for Europe.”
Europe also has a complicated relationship with Russia. Many EU nations rely on Russian investment and natural resources. But Europe has led a sanctions charge on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and alleged state-sanctioned attacks on Russian dissidents living in Europe. Arguably the most high-profile of these cases was the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Johnson was British foreign secretary at the time and was quick to blame Moscow, driving a push for the international expulsion of Russian diplomats.
That was then. During last year’s election, Johnson made big spending promises to the public he now leads. Russian investment could help make ends meet, given that the City of London is a favored destination for wealthy Russians.