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We are letting the world burn while UK fiddles with Brexit

(Photo by Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Brexit has distracted Europe from the foreign policy crises on its doorstep, including the horror of Aleppo. This British diversion endangers the whole continent, including the UK

Contrary to the much vaunted ‘left behind’ argument, Brexit is also a symptom of affluence and complacency supported by large numbers of comfortably-off voters.

Many of the identity issues underlying it are insignificant luxuries when compared with the fundamental questions of peace and prosperity from which lots of fortunate British voters have become insulated.

We all have only a finite amount of time, energy and attention, European political leaders included. The problem is that when theirs is diverted from serious crises to unnecessary ones like Brexit, then it puts the security of more than 500 million people at risk.

The costs of disengagement have been graphically illustrated over recent weeks during the fall of Aleppo. An otherwise distracted Europe was conspicuously absent as President Assad regained control over the city, with the brutal support of Russia and Iran. They have bombed everything in their path, hitting hospitals and aid workers and starving the civilian population out of opposition held areas. In doing so, they have shredded the credibility of the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, upon which we all depend, civilians and soldiers alike, to ensure humane conduct during conflicts.

Whilst Britain and Europe’s reluctance to get too deeply involved in Syria predates Brexit, our leaders have become increasingly disengaged since the referendum, even as the atrocities and dangers to us mount. Apart from issuing impotent statements condemning the Russian and Syrian regimes’ excesses, we Europeans have left US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to carry the peace-seeking burden alone. Their task is a hopeless one partly because Russia feels less pressure to change its behaviour when it knows that Europe is not focused on it too.

Some politicians and commentators have cynically sought to make a virtue of inaction by speculating that Assad reasserting control over most of Syria will bring stability back to the country. That is highly unlikely. Few of the millions of surviving victims of his war crimes are ever likely to be reconciled to his rule. Most of the rebel fighters will continue to resist. Their sense of abandonment and desperation means some could be tempted to join anti-Western extremist groups.

Meanwhile Brexit damages Europe’s ability to prevent terrorism at a time of unprecedented threat levels. In addition to being a result of Assad’s destruction of the mainstream opposition in Aleppo, the heightened terrorist threat is a downside of the more positive, entirely separate developments nearby.

Assorted American and Turkish backed local forces are pushing ISIS out of the territory it controls in Iraq and north-eastern Syria. They have already taken 40% of this territory and are closing in on the cities the group holds. The US estimates 45,000 ISIS fighters have been ‘removed from the battlefield’. But ISIS’s warped ideas cannot be eliminated militarily and its surviving fighters will move elsewhere.

The new head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6), Alex Younger, said recently that the security forces have foiled twelve major terrorist plots in the UK since 2013. Even more high-quality police and intelligence work is now required to prevent returning ISIS fighters from committing atrocities in Europe. But coping with this transnational threat depends on the EU-wide system of close security and judicial cooperation. Brexit aims to undermine this system. Every hour officials have to spend working out how to salvage their coordination network is time taken away from tackling terrorists.

Nor will Assad’s empty victory put an end to the migration crisis. In fact, his scorched earth policy is likely to spark another wave of people fleeing towards an ill-prepared Europe. The immigration-obsessed Brexiteers will be unhappy about some of these refugees reaching Britain. It is bleakly ironic, then, that Europe is struggling to devote sufficient attention to the refugee crisis because it is having to deal with Brexit too.

Brexit is also diverting attention from the intense Russian military threat even closer to home. The Baltic States and Poland are at the most immediate risk from Russia. The Kremlin is not slow to read signals. Europe’s distraction and comments by associates of US President-elect Donald Trump, such as Newt Gingrich’s disgraceful remark about abandoning Estonia because it is ‘some place in the suburbs of St Petersburg’, may well be interpreted as a green light to attack.

Neville Chamberlain’s disparagement of central Europe as ‘far away countries of which we know little’ was wrong when he was doing his deal with Hitler in 1938. Such an attitude is even more wrong now, both morally and factually. Further Russian invasions there would have a huge impact on Britain. There would of course be major economic damage and refugee exoduses.

Moreover, as a NATO nation, we would be obliged to fight in defence of our fellow member states. Failure to do so would render obsolete the collective security guarantee upon which NATO is based and destroy the organisation that has kept us safe from external enemies since the end of the Second World War.

Meanwhile, the Russians are putting passenger planes in danger with their reckless air force incursions into our airspace and seeking to undermine democracy in Europe through cyber warfare. These nefarious activities should be inspiring stronger measures in response from the EU. Instead, Europe’s fatigue from the internal issues it is going through is aiding the cause of what the Germans sarcastically call Putin-Verstehers (Putin-understanders).

They advocate the supposedly easier options of lifting the sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and more ‘engagement’ with Putin. Such appeasement would be calamitous because it would remove the pressure that is currently holding Russia somewhat in check. Putin knows this. It is why he has been trying to break European solidarity for years and cultivates his Front National, AfD and UKIP fan clubs to help him do so. But it is not just the far right that is pushing appeasement. Powerful European figures such as French presidential candidate François Fillon and likely next German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier are prone to it too.

These are the crises of which we are already aware. More problems over the years to come will inevitably be caused by what former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan referred to as ‘events, dear boy, events’ – the ones as yet unknown.

Some potential future crises include Trump’s plans to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal, which could spark an atomic arms race in the Middle East. Britain, France and Germany are also key parties to the deal and would be well-placed to mitigate its unravelling – if they could fully focus on it. Libya is a borderline failed state on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. A renegade General, Khalifa Haftar, is looking to take dictatorial power there, with unpredictable consequences for Europe. Further east, North Korea could implode at any time and attempt to take its neighbours Japan and South Korea down with it. Europe’s second largest trading partner, China, might misjudge its aggressive assertion of its new superpower status in Asia and spark a conflict with one or more of its neighbours.

The long list of troubles on Europe’s doorstep and around the world puts Brexit into perspective. Instead of focusing on the serious threats out there, we are going to spend many years sorting out the consequences of Britain’s self-indulgence instead. Even after the negotiation phase of Brexit is over, Europe will be permanently weakened by the damage to its unity and the loss of one of its historically strongest foreign policy powers, Britain. A diminished Britain and Europe will be less of a countervailing force against the world’s most malign regimes. This decline will give brutal dictators like Putin and Assad more scope to create further global tragedies such as Syria.

Thanks to Brexit, when further security crises inevitably occur in the world, European leaders’ attention will be focused on fiddling with Article 50 whilst Rome burns.

Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and author of The Accidental Diplomat

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