Dalibor Rohac

Many Europeans continue to yearn for British leadership

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala welcoming Liz Truss to Prague (Credit: Getty images)

Liz Truss’s mind was probably elsewhere when she arrived in Prague for the inaugural summit of the European Political Community (EPC) today. After precipitating a financial panic, backtracking on tax reform plans, and seeing her approval rating plummet to -37 within a week, the Prime Minister has a lot on her plate. It would be a mistake, however, for the PM not to seize the opportunity to strengthen the leadership role the UK is currently enjoying among much of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Nordic states.

Despite its French DNA, the idea of an EPC is a sound one. There is an urgent need for an intergovernmental platform where EU members can engage with countries outside the bloc, especially those that are punching above their weight on the global stage: Ukraine (of course), the UK or Norway.

Should Liz Truss succumb to the temptations of ‘nation-building at home’, it would be a tragic mistake for the UK and the world

For all his flaws, it is Truss’ predecessor in No. 10, Boris Johnson, who deserves much of the credit for the high status the UK currently enjoys in the northeast of Europe, as well as in Ukraine itself. The new cabinet, including its foreign secretary, are committed to continuing to provide support to Ukraine. However, its domestic political turmoil does not bode well for the kind of role that Britain’s closest European partners would like it to play, providing a counterweight to the hesitant, self-deterring attitudes in Berlin and Paris.

For one, how strong the Prime Minister’s position is determines how much weight others can place on her promises. It is heartening to hear that James Cleverly is determined to ‘support (Ukraine) until the last Russian tank is dragged away by the last Ukrainian tractor’. Yet, he is unlikely to be in his job by the time that happens.

More seriously, just like the rest of Europe, the UK is facing some serious economic woes, having already got an early taste of the financial troubles looming on the horizon. Truss’s efforts to restart economic growth are laudable but even under the most optimistic assumptions about the effects of tax cuts on economic performance, rewards are more than a few years away. Meanwhile, the economic policy this administration is proposing inevitably involves unpleasant trade-offs, particularly with a debt to GDP ratio close to 100 per cent.

Retaining the confidence of financial markets, for instance, will require that tax cuts – or additional aid to households and firms facing skyrocketing energy bills – be accompanied by reduction of government spending. Not only is that a difficult political proposition in its own right but it also risks clashing with Truss’s pledge to bring up defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030, something that will require additional cumulative spending of around £157 billion.

For years, the gradual reduction of the UK’s defence budget bankrolled the expansion of the country’s welfare and health spending, both of which are difficult to now scale back. Experience of the most recent financial crisis suggests that defence spending might be the first victim of any future ‘austerity’ measures – compromising either military assistance to Ukraine, the promised build-up of the UK’s own military capabilities, or, most likely, both.

There might be more than a bit of Schadenfreude in German or French attitudes towards post-Brexit Britain. Nevertheless, many Europeans continue to yearn for British leadership – particularly at a time when they are confronting a madman with nukes, drunk on the neofascist ideology of Ivan Ilyin.

It is true that in some ways Brexit opened new opportunities for ‘Global Britain’, giving the UK more flexibility in finding a role that would not be constrained by the rigours of Brussels’ decision-making on foreign and security policy. At the same time, it also carries the risk of a turn inward – particularly as the country faces domestic crises. Should Liz Truss succumb to the temptations of ‘nation-building at home’, as the former US president Barack Obama called it in the American context, it would be a tragic mistake, both for the UK and the world.