Brexit and the global commons

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by Hans Dembowski

Foreign policy, cooperation and the ecology

It struck me after posting my last blog contribution, which dealt with Britain leaving the EU, that the distinction I made between international cooperation and foreign policy actually has an interesting environmental aspect. As I see it, partnership depends on shared ownership, whereas foreign policy focuses on one's own nations’ advantages.

In this sense, foreign policy agencies see the rest of the world as something they are supposed to exploit as best they can. They have no control over what is going on beyond their own borders, and they do not feel they bear any responsibility for it. Accordingly, Brexit proponents who, like Boris Johnson, basically argued that Britain deserved more concessions from the EU were taking a foreign-policy stance.  

International partnership requires a different mindset. Partnerships create contexts in which not only one’s own immediate interests matter, but those of the partners are relevant too. Partnerships are doomed to fail if the parties involved only take into account their own benefits. Moreover, partnerships are not just about achieving immediate results. They have a long-term and self-preserving dimension. They need to build institutions, foster trust and improve the conditions for further cooperation.

In a metaphorical way, the foreign-policy approach resembles that of a society that exploits its natural environment without concern for ecological sustainability. That approach is viable if the society concerned is small and uses simple technologies because then it will not undermine the health of the ecosystem it depends on. If, on the other hand, the population is huge and the technology advanced, the take-what-you-can-get approach will prove self-defeating because it will destroy the foundations the community depends on.

The globalising world society of more than 7 billion people that inhabits our planet cannot afford in-group versus out-group approaches in which governments take care of their national interests but do not feel responsible for the global commons. This applies to the global commons in the literal sense of protecting the world from climate change and stemming the erosion of biodiversity. However, it also applies to the global commons understood as a global polity, which needs to be further developed in a sense of cooperation rather than eroded by competing nation states.  

How Brexit will actually happen, remains to be seen. Most likely, the process will take years and cause considerable confusion. The decision itself has already rocked the institutional order of the EU, and that has implications for the global polity. As I argued before, Brexit is bad news not only for Europeans, but for the global community and international development in general.

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