Brexit is the most divisive issue in UK politics for generations. But one thing all commentators agree on is that the ongoing talks over exiting the EU are a test of bargaining power.
Yet power is a function of legitimacy, as Henry Kissinger observed in A World Restored, his masterly survey of 19th century European diplomacy. The settlement that shaped European politics for the rest of the century emerged from an agreement over the legitimacy of major states’ interests, not a bargaining free-for-all determined by power politics.
Kissinger’s diplomats would have seen Brexit instantly for what it really is: a revolutionary act that rejects the very legitimacy of the existing EU order. British politicians and voters of all stripes need to appreciate this dimension of the withdrawal negotiations. Until then, they will continue to misread the situation and think the EU27 is bargaining over interests. In fact, it’s defending its principles. The UK must eventually propose a new institutional order – rather than a wishlist of the interests it wants to protect, from trade to immigration.