The back cover of Peter Wilding’s new book, What’s Next? sets an ambitious goal: to ‘spell out a bold new vision for British foreign relations.’ Many of the book’s core messages are not exactly brand new, but rather a continuation of Wilding’s work as the founder and chair of British Influence, a think tank founded in 2012 to make the case for the EU. Wilding himself has been credited with coming up with the phrase ‘Brexit’. It is unsurprising therefore that Wilding’s book – published fewer than one hundred days after the referendum – argues passionately that continued engagement with Europe is necessary for Britain to remain a world leader. Wilding’s vision for this continued engagement tends towards rhetorical flair and buzzwords like ‘smart power’ and ‘new patriotism’ rather than precise policy ideas. Regardless, the book offers valuable and highly readable insights in the raging debate on Brexit negotiations. Wilding’s optimistic tone and willingness to start a positive discussion could not be more timely.
The first part of the book traces the UK’s turbulent history with the European integration process, focusing especially on Churchill and Thatcher. Wilding tends to evaluate British foreign policy since the second world war against Churchill’s vision of Britain at the heart of ‘three majestic circles’: the Commonwealth, the English-speaking world, and a ‘United Europe’. Britain must maintain its power and influence by leveraging its position at the centre of these various networks. Consequently, Wilding sees various foreign policy failures – such as the Suez Crisis – as a result of Britain hanging on to imperial ambitions as opposed to developing ‘smart power.’ Similarly, failure to engage in the earliest stages of European integration hurt British influence later on.
However, Wilding also tries to show that despite periods of indifference, Britain was a leader in Europe, contributing to those policy decisions that have made European integration a success. Indeed, Thatcher’s role in creating the single market and the EU is often overlooked. Some of Wilding’s most interesting observations relate to Thatcher’s Bruges speech – often remembered as a rallying cry to Euroscepticism. He thinks many current European leaders would now agree with its main precepts, because much of what she described came to pass – particularly her wish for limited supranationalism and her critiques of the single currency. This chapter also traces how more recent events, especially the creation of ‘social Europe,’ turned both Labour and Conservative policies on their heads. Wilding manages to distil these complex processes in a very engaging and succinct (though not impartial) way. All of this provides context for the feelings of betrayal and resentment driving Euroscepticism, especially for younger readers who might be unfamiliar with these events.
When Wilding turns to the eponymous ‘What’s Next’, he builds on his historical analysis and, importantly, looks at the future of Western cooperation in the context of a rising China and revanchist Russia – context that seems to be entirely missing from many discussions of Brexit. Britain must continue to forge the three circles through active engagement with the continent and a ‘bold and values driven policy’. Wilding provides a persuasive sketch of why the UK should remain in the single market, but argues that the UK’s European policy should move towards politics rather than economics. As a part of this, he suggests Britain should lead in uniting the alphabet soup of European organisations (such as NATO, the OSCE, or ICCS – the International Commission on Civil Status) under a common umbrella, and unifying their civil services. Wilding does not address the obvious issues here: unifying NATO’s civil service (created to contain Russia) with that of the OSCE (which includes Russia as a member state) seems a little dubious. He also does not explain how exactly this effort would strengthen British influence; smart power seems to entail that simply taking initiative in international affairs translates to power. There may be some value to this idea, but it is not clearly elaborated here.
Wilding leaves many aspects of the titular question unanswered: he hints at, but does not fully address what’s next in terms of Brexit negotiation strategy, or what’s next for rising populism and anti-intellectualism, which might reject any prescriptions from experts such as himself. Nonetheless, many of his ideas – even if not particularly detailed – are thought-provoking: he proposes a digital single market and a kind of two-track European integration, where states like Britain, Denmark or Hungary participate in an expanding European Economic Area, leaving the core EU states to continue integrating.
The lack of detail on the oncoming negotiations is also to some extent deliberate, as much of the book is a rhetorical work aimed at creating a sense of purpose in a despondent and anxiety-ridden national debate. Wilding seeks to extract a wider vision that might inform the messy back and forth between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit; as he rightly points out, remainers and Brexiters both want to preserve Britain’s influence in the world. With his portrayal of great British leaders’ thoughts on Europe and his focus on ‘Smart Brexit’, Wilding creates a powerful defence against the accusation that supporting European engagement is unpatriotic. The remain campaign was particularly dogged by gloom and threatening visions of the future; it is truly refreshing to read positive and creative pro-European ideas.
Image: Mike Mertz