The endless arm wrestling over Brexit has meant that Britain has been eyes down since June 2016, preoccupied with the backstop, the deal or no deal, and the internal agonies of the Conservative Party. The opportunity costs in terms of pressing domestic issues neglected are obvious. Much less discussed has been the long term future of the country in relation to its international environment, despite the fact that not even the most enthusiastic supporters of ‘take back control’ seriously claim that the UK can be self-sufficient after detaching itself from the European Union.
It is now sixty years since the British government first decided that the country’s destiny lay in joining the European Common Market, a view endorsed in the 1975 referendum by a margin of 2 to 1. This was in part because British foreign policy was having to draw in its horns, with the closure of military bases ‘east of Suez’. Britain and France, as Europe’s leading states, had resisted strong US pressure to fight in Vietnam and had no wish to get drawn into far-flung conflicts just as they were coming to terms with the dismantling of their empires.
This background makes it clear that the 2016 decision to break with the EU would reverse a pattern of British foreign policy which has been settled for more than half a century. Decision-makers have become used to participating in a regular and intensive process of foreign policy consultation within the EU which at the same time does not constrain sovereignty. Britain has always had the right to pursue its own line, whether unilaterally or in relation to the UN and the Commonwealth. Indeed the EU Treaty makes it clear that the first obligation of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (that is, Britain and France) is to the UNSC itself and only then to the EU. The UK has often demonstrated its capacity to exercise its own judgement in foreign affairs, as during the Iraq war of 2003. On the other hand it has also often looked to its European partners for essential support, as during the Falklands war of 1982 when Argentina was shocked to find Britain supported at the UN by all its European partners.
If we assume that Britain would still want to benefit from such cooperation after leaving the Union, which the relief with which Theresa May’s government greeted the European support after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, makes wholly plausible, then it has two options: first, it can fall back on bilateral relations with individual countries, particularly the big five of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. This is feasible but does not bring access to their collective consultations, while it would require the upgrading of embassies in national capitals which have been steadily run down given the efficiency of multilateral meetings in Brussels. Second, it can attempt to negotiate special access as a ‘third state’ to the EU’s meetings, which take place at all levels from specialised working groups up to foreign ministers. The most important of these is the Political and Security Committee (PSC), because of the seniority of the officials who constitute it and the frequency of its meetings. The ideal outcome for the UK, already canvassed by the Government, would be an Associate Membership of the PSC, enabling access to its agenda, papers and discussions if not to voting rights. At present this seems an unlikely scenario. The withdrawal deal has caused agonising delays and has yet to be agreed. At best British officials are likely to find themselves waiting in corridors outside EU meetings hoping for privileged briefings and the occasional invitation to present their views.
It might be that a government set on a hard Brexit would feel confident enough not to worry about being deprived of Europe’s foreign policy networks, preferring to go down the path of ‘global Britain’. While no-one has yet fully spelled out what this might mean it is clearly associated with the ‘Anglosphere’ – the idea that the English-speaking countries, and in particular the Five Eyes intelligence grouping of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the United States’, represents a set of common values, interests and instruments sufficient to exert a powerful influence on the international system. In this case Britain would be exchanging its membership of a regional organisation for a geographically dispersed virtual community. It would hope to glean further support from the 53 member Commonwealth and from ‘strategic partnerships’ with states such as India or Japan.
The trouble with this scenario is that it represents wishful thinking. It is true that Britain must have a global perspective and look for profits wherever they can be found. But globalism as a strategy is a different matter, for four reasons. First, in a world inter-connected on so many levels it is not plausible for Britain to present itself as uniquely qualified to act as a hub between differing regions and groupings. Second, a country which chooses to detach itself from its own region inevitably loses some of its attractiveness to others as both an entry point and a major player. Third, Britain is already struggling to find the resources to support foreign and defence policies. Fourth, the inability to live up to the claim to be a global player will create a credibility gap and further reputational damage – indeed, the chaos of the last three years has already drained away much of the country’s famed ‘soft power’.
Christopher Hill, Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Bologna.
Author: The Future of British Foreign Policy: Security and Diplomacy in a World after Brexit (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019).
The rest of this editorial will be published in January 2020