By: John Elliott

As Britain flounders towards its unpredictable semi-European future, an international foreign affairs conference in New Delhi has surprisingly produced a persuasive case for Brexit being the UK’s best long-term course, despite all the problems and uncertainty, and even if remaining in the European Union seems more immediately sensible.

It happened at India’s annual Raisina Dialogue in a brief but memorable dogfight between speakers from Hungary and the Netherlands over immigration into the European Union, and in an equally memorable but more constructive speech from Spain’s foreign minister, who pleaded the case for sovereignty -ceding political, diplomatic and defense unity.

Who could want to stay in such a divided club with such unreal disruptive ambitions? Former British prime minister Tony Blair, for one, who bounced onto the stage full of smiles to assert the case for a new remain-yielding referendum. “You have a Brexit that is pointless or a Brexit that is painful,” he said. Since there was no majority for either, “it makes sense to go back to the people to ask do you really want to go ahead with this?”

Brexit of course wasn’t the main focus of the conference, which was organized by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, a leading policy institute, and was attended by some 600 delegates from over 90 countries.

The threat of a growing and aggressive China inevitably was the main concern, as it was last year. I reported then that, even though China was gradually moving to a position where it would dominate the world’s international affairs, disrupting established institutions and trade routes and building its own alternatives, most of the rest of the world had little idea how to respond except to try to persuade it not to be too disruptive.

People I spoke to this year said ideas had moved on since then, though it was difficult to pin down how. The main thought was “containing” China’s disruptive expansion, which speakers pointed out was an inadequate reactive approach compared with what was described by a Japanese admiral as China’s conflict-provoking drive.

India’s naval chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, whose fleets are desperately under-equipped, mournfully noted that China’s navy grown by 80 ships in the past five years – the biggest naval growth in two centuries.

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell

Much has been made of The Quad, a group linking the US, Australia, Japan and India as the vehicle to contain China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Its limitations however were spelled out by Stephen Smith, former Australian defense minister, who said the countries had only two or three meetings in 10 or 11years and indicated it was not a viable forum.

Tony Blair’s call for a fresh referendum has considerable support in the UK as the next sensible step if prime minister Theresa May’s blighted agreement is rejected by Britain’s parliament on January 15.

No one knows whether that would produce a majority to remain in the EU because of the economic costs of leaving, or to leave because of the tough treatment meted out to the UK since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

What the Raisin Dialogue pinpointed however was that there are deeply held issues, especially how to treat and control immigrants, that defy solutions so it may be better for the UK to try to do it itself which, indeed, is May’s approach.

Add to that, if Britain did remain in, there would be constant arguments about Spain’s – and France’s – keenness for closer union on issues like an army that would arouse the passions of the UK’s anti-EU lobby and bedevil British politics for years to come, as they have done already for decades. The rump of the Conservative Party, and other groups, that passionately believe Britain should leave will never give up, so maybe it is better to cut loose now.

The theme of Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, was that no single European nation is capable of dealing with the emergence of “economic giants” such as India, China, and Brazil. The only solution was for countries to act together. “Sometimes, ceding sovereignty can help protect sovereignty,” he argued.” We cannot be a soft power forever. The EU needs to develop its hard power to be collectively seen as a credible power.”

We are few, we are old…..

Borrell, who is a former president of the European Parliament, painted Europe as a continent in decline in terms of its percentage of the world’s population, and the size of its economy compared with the rising powers of Asia and Africa.

“We are few, we are old, and we are dependent because we buy 60 percent of our energy, and being few, old and dependent is not a good prospect for the future,” he declared.

The only way is therefore to be united, “putting together our army, our diplomatic strength and what we have best – our intellectual capacity, cultural heritage”, but that requires “sharing sovereignty”.

Mariette Schaake, a MEP from the Netherlands

A speaker from Finland also saw the EU as the “protector of our security,” while one from Latvia similarly said the EU is “about security and offers peace,” which requires a “sense of partnership.”

Borrell recognized however that many European countries don’t want to cede sovereignty, especially those in eastern Europe that have relatively recently been freed from the group of the Soviet Union. “Sometimes you listen to them saying Brussels is a kind of new Moscow,” he said.

The European Union dogfight broke out during a session on Diversity within the Union – The EU’s Mid-Life Check-List. It began when Mariette Schaake, an outspoken politician from the Netherlands, said there need to be “shared obligations…sharing burdens”. She robustly condemned Hungary, saying it took billions of dollars of EU funds, but then did not accept Syrian refugees, which meant it was not doing its share of what was needed.

Péter Szàray, Hungary’s security minister, who was sitting next to Schaake on the platform, countered that his country was within its rights in refusing to accommodate the refugees and close its borders because the EU’s Schengen free movement of people rules allow a country to close its borders in exceptional circumstances.

Scathingly noting that “the only migrants still in Hungary are the ones on posters,” Schaake, who is a member of the European Parliament, said that “countries cannot expect full benefits and zero obligations from EU membership,” adding “shared obligations are important over individual interests for the EU.”

She insisted before the session that she was going to attack Hungary, instead of avoiding the issue of immigration, which Szàray had suggested.

One could argue whether, if a club has such differences that they have to be aired in a third country’s foreign affairs conference, it is worth being a member. Would it not be better to get out and leave them to their inconclusive bitter wrangles?

EU sensitivities

So sensitive are EU members about what they all say about each other that Francoise Nicolas, director of a French Asian affairs center, resented the Spanish foreign minister apparently (she said) referring to her country when he had talked about small EU states not realizing that they were small.

She capped that however with a dig at the UK, saying that a small state which “was about to leave” would “be more negligible and will know it” – that was greeted with laughter.

France’s foreign secretary, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, also referred to the UK when he said in the final session on The Road to 2030 that, in the EU, “we are more sovereign than when we are on our own”, echoing a point made by Borrell.

That was a dig at Mark Sedwill, Britain’s newly appointed Cabinet Secretary, who doubles as national security adviser and had flown in specially for the conference, abandoning his crisis-ridden Whitehall office. Never mind, said Gourdault-Montagne, patting Sedwill’s arm, “the closeness of our relationship will remain.”

It might have seemed irresponsible for Sedwill to desert his London office a few days before the parliament vote for a conference in India, but these are extraordinary times. His decision not to cancel shows how desperate Britain is to keep in favor with its old colony, hoping this will help it negotiate a trade pact once Brexit is done, assuming it is.

The other message from the conference was that Brussels had treated Britain so roughly that no other EU member would dare risk trying to escape. As the Finnish speaker put it, referring to Britain’s current plight, “I don’t think many countries will be willing to experiment with these sorts of ideas.”

“We’ll miss you guys,” Mariette Schaake told me. Maybe, but having got so far, is it really sensible to try to scramble back into such a club?

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.