Lessons from Britain’s Brexit breakthrough

What the United Kingdom has achieved provides an object lesson in strategy and diplomacy for every democratic nation, not least when it comes to dealing with the Middle East or threats from foreign aggressors.

The Union Jack and the European Union Flag. Credit:
The Union Jack and the European Union Flag. Credit:
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to:

This New Year’s day, Britain finds itself in a position that few expected even as late as last week.

With the arrival of 2021, it regains its status as an independent, sovereign nation governed by laws passed by its own democratically elected parliament free of control by a foreign power. Brexit has finally been achieved.

For those squinting at Britain from elsewhere, how this came about and what it amounts to might appear both bewildering and irrelevant to any other country’s concerns.

In fact, what Britain has now so remarkably achieved, and how it did so, provides an object lesson in strategy and diplomacy for every democratic nation, not least when it comes to dealing with the Middle East or threats from foreign aggressors.

Although the United Kingdom formally left the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020, it entered into a transition period of 11 months within which to negotiate its future relationship with the E.U.

The Europeans were determined not to give Britain any advantage that might enable it to prosper far more than E.U. member states ruled by Brussels. Since Britain obviously wanted to gain precisely that advantage, a battle was inevitable.

But the E.U. made a fatal error. It failed to realize that Britain really meant what it said.

Eurocrats are locked into the progressive mindset that regards democratic national self-government as an impediment to transnational utopia. So the E.U. negotiators never took seriously the passionate desire of the British people to become once again an independent self-governing nation, as expressed in their 2016 Brexit referendum vote, nor the pledge by their prime minister, Boris Johnson, to honor that vote.

Moreover, the Eurocrats shared the attitude displayed by many in Britain who voted to remain in the E.U.—that the U.K. was too weak and useless to go it alone in the world.

The European negotiators assumed that, regardless of Britain’s formal exit, it would still want to keep many of the advantages of E.U. membership and would therefore swallow the back-door control by Brussels that these would entail.

Accordingly, even when Britain’s former prime minister Theresa May was dumped from office last year after trying to foist upon her country departure terms that would have turned it into an E.U. “vassal” state, the E.U. assumed that her successor, Boris Johnson, would prove equally feeble and pliable.

So when the British government maintained that sovereignty was its absolutely non-negotiable red line, the E.U. assumed that it was speaking with forked tongue. And when Johnson declared that he would opt for no deal at all rather than breach his sovereignty pledge, the E.U. didn’t believe him.

Confident that he was an opportunist anxious to avoid compounding the damage done by Brexit, it offered terms designed to play upon what it assumed was Britain’s main weakness. This was its supposed desperation to safeguard what the E.U. believed to be the U.K.’s most valuable assets—the City of London financial center, the creative industries and the professions.

So to minimize disadvantage to these areas, the E.U. offered to keep them alone within the EU single market—and thus hook the U.K. under E.U. control in perpetuity. Certain that Britain would want to protect these assets, the E.U. was therefore astounded when it turned the offer down.

With the clock ticking last week to the deadline, the astonishing truth suddenly dawned on the Eurocrats that Johnson actually meant what he said. As a result, they were staring down the barrel of no deal.

Problematic as this would have been for Britain, it would have been far worse for the E.U. And so, at the last minute, a trade and co-operation agreement suddenly materialized.

True, it’s a flawed deal for Britain—not least because of areas like financial services that have now been left out of it altogether.

Other elements of the previously agreed U.K. withdrawal terms—in particular, a fudge over Northern Ireland that will follow certain E.U. single market rules—are very bad.

But the point is that these are now merely flawed treaties the U.K. can renegotiate, exit or supersede if it chooses.

For crucially, it has regained its sovereign power to make its own laws and policies, the essence of a democratic and free nation. That was the fundamental point behind the Brexit vote.

And the important lesson for other nations is that the British government pulled off this feat because its opponents didn’t believe it actually meant what it said—but it really did, and acted accordingly.

The assumption that the West believes in nothing strongly enough to fight for it has fueled conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. Around the world, aggressors gain the advantage because they know that Western democracies that say they’ll bring them to heel don’t actually mean it.

From Iran to North Korea, from China to the Palestinians, rogue states, terrorist regimes and other aggressors have been able to continue their murderous, expansionist activities because they think that, however much the West may threaten them, it won’t follow through.

So the Palestinians never believed the West meant it when it told them they had to accept the right of Israel to exist. Why should they have believed this, when until 2016 at least the West never stopped excusing, funding and incentivizing their aggression?

The one exception to this has been U.S. President Donald Trump, who called the Palestinians’ manipulative bluff. Told by the rest of the West that moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would provoke the Arab world to violence, he ignored this and moved it anyway.

Not only was there no such uprising, but now the Palestinians have been marginalized by an Arab world that’s increasingly making its peace with Israel in a way that was previously unthinkable.

That’s largely due in turn to Trump taking the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on the regime. He thus showed that, unlike former President Barack Obama or the British and the Europeans, when he said he intended to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, he really did mean it.

Now there are fears that President-elect Joe Biden may reactivate the Iran deal and start pumping money again into the regime’s nefarious activities; or he may once again incentivize the Palestinians’ agenda of destroying Israel; or he may allow China to walk all over him in its drive to dominate the West.

This is based on the fear that Biden may behave as the left always behave. They have no red lines of principle over stopping aggressors and protecting their victims. Instead, their doctrine of moral equivalence means that they make no such value judgments between aggressor and victim. Their red line is instead merely to keep negotiations and peace processes going. The result is that they excuse and empower aggressors just to keep them from walking out of the talks.

So when they claim to be against tyranny, racism and oppression, the world’s tyrants, racists and oppressors know they don’t mean what they say.

Britain now faces more battles with the E.U. The free world faces more battles with Iran, China, Russia, Islamic jihadists and other lethal foes. The Jews face their interminable battle against those who wish to destroy them.

What the Brexit deal reminds us is that hypocrites are dismissed with contempt as paper tigers; and that for freedom, justice and democracy to win against aggression, injustice and tyranny, the leaders of the free world must not pay mere lip-service to defending the former but actually mean what they say.

Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy,” in 2018. Go to to access her work.

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