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UK gives up foreign policy role and influence, post-Brexit

At a time of major global and European challenges, the UK’s decision to sideline itself and retreat into mercantilism, is an act of folly.

lead British Prime Minister Theresa May during the final press briefing at the EU Summit in Brussels, Oct. 21, 2016.Alastair Grant/Press Association. All rights reserved. At the EU’s October summit, UK Prime Minister Theresa May told the assembled leaders that, once it left the EU, the UK would remain a ‘strong and dependable partner’. Given that the UK is effectively walking away from the heart of Europe’s post-world war two order, the EU27 leaders could be forgiven for taking this with a large pinch of salt. Since the Brexit vote… how little attention has been paid to this shift to a global foreign policy of narrow mercantilism.

Whatever the UK’s future foreign policy goals, it is clear that Brexit entails a profound loss of influence and engagement for the UK across a range of EU and global challenges. Yet one of the remarkable features of the British debate since the Brexit vote is how little attention has been paid to this shift to a global foreign policy of narrow mercantilism, with attention focused instead onto how to retain all the benefits of the single market while leaving the EU (a quixotic aim indeed).

Losing influence across the board

The EU faces a set of major challenges today that range from internal ones, to its neighbourhood to global issues. These include tackling the continuing fall-out from the 2008 global financial crisis, the ‘arc of crisis’ that surrounds the EU’s neighbourhood both to the East and South, and global issues – not least climate change, and the shifting global power order.

The UK may well establish, after Brexit, some sort of forum for foreign policy dialogue with the EU27 that will discuss sanctions on Russia, or climate change, or relations with Turkey amongst myriad other challenges. But the UK will no longer be in the room as the EU takes decisions and develops policy on a wide range of issues. And so it will not be part of the multiple, intense interactions across the EU27 that finally result in policy decisions and implementation. No UK-EU foreign policy forum will begin to make up for that day-to-day contact and decision-making at all levels.

From the absence of UK politicians in the European Council, Council of Ministers and European Parliament to lack of officials in the European Commission, the ceaseless interaction that binds the EU member states together will not include the UK. And no UK-EU foreign policy forum will begin to make up for that day-to-day contact and decision-making at all levels – nor the trade-offs and deals that are often done across apparently unrelated issues and policies.

A brief look at any of the major issues in the EU’s neighbourhood illustrates clearly how little role the UK will have.

The EU’s now troubled relationship with Turkey is one that the UK played a major role in a decade ago, when the EU – in confident mode – took the strategic decisions to open membership talks with Turkey. Now, with the EU-Turkey talks effectively on ice, the EU-Turkey deal on refugees on shaky ground – and under fire from human rights organisations – and Turkey growing more authoritarian by the day, how the EU should best manage its relations with Turkey is a key but difficult question.

The UK – like the US – will have to attempt to influence EU decisions on this from the outside, from where it is likely to have little or no influence on whether membership talks continue, how the EU-Turkey customs union develops, how the EU-Turkey refugee deal turns out, whether Turkey is given visa-free travel to the EU and more.

And while the EU has had weak policies and influence towards the conflict and violence in the Middle East and North Africa, it has on occasion played an important role such as in the nuclear deal with Iran, or in more pragmatic areas such as its assistance to some of the more stable North African countries such as Tunisia, and in other wider development and aid programmes. Outside the EU, the UK – even with its anachronistic permanent seat on the UN Security Council – will not be part of EU foreign policy or aid and development strategies towards the Middle East and North Africa nor more widely around the world. Of course, by stepping back from the refugee crisis of the last two years and refusing to take any significant numbers of refugees, the UK had already lost influence in the EU.

Of course, by stepping back from the refugee crisis of the last two years and refusing to take any significant numbers of refugees, the UK had already lost influence in the EU. Likewise, once a champion of the EU’s enlargement, the UK became, under David Cameron as Prime Minister, a much less engaged member state on these issues. But still the UK was in the room, and had a vote, and its lack of engagement was a choice, if a bad one. After Brexit, the UK will simply not be in the room.

A similar tale can be told around the EU’s troubled relationship with Russia, and its handling of the Ukraine crisis. While Germany and France have led visibly on the Ukraine crisis, the UK has still played some role within the EU in supporting sanctions on Russia and in having a say on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine (currently threatened by the Dutch vote on this).

Outside the EU, why will the UK’s views on how the EU should build its relationship with Ukraine hold any weight at all? And while the EU will surely want the UK to participate, if sanctions against Russia continue, the EU27 will take their own decision on continuing sanctions or not, not in an EU27-UK forum.

Other policy areas abound, where the UK will no longer have a say. The prospects for EU membership for the countries of the western Balkans are currently varied – but the process is moving very slowly. The ramifications of this slow but continued engagement by the EU are important for political and economic developments in these countries still facing multiple challenges. If the EU gets it right it can influence democracy, economic development and stability for the better, if it gets it wrong then instability and corruption may grow. But once again the UK will have no say – the detailed processes as well as strategic decisions on these enlargement talks will not include the UK in any way.

Global influence in sharp decline too

The UK will also lose influence across a range of global issues where the EU is a significant player. Climate change is one of the most obvious of these big global challenges. The EU has managed to be influential at times in climate talks – despite the greater power and influence of the big two or three of the US, China and to some extent India. The EU has managed to be influential at times in climate talks – despite the greater power and influence of the big two or three of the US, China and to some extent India. And, at least under Labour governments until 2010, the UK played a significant role in contributing to the development of EU climate policies and strategies.

After Brexit, there will doubtless be EU27-UK talks that cover climate change, but the EU27’s position in global talks will be set by internal EU position papers, debates and arguments – over big strategy and small details – that will finally determine the EU’s position.

Where EU trade policy goes next is another open question – both for the Brexit talks themselves but more widely given the troubled ratification of the Canada-EU trade deal and the growing opposition to deals such as TTIP. The post-Brexit UK will only be able to negotiate its own trade deals (assuming it does leave the EU’s customs union). For better or worse, it will no longer influence the direction of EU trade policy at all.

The UK will still be present at global fora such as the G8 and G20 but its influence there will be much diminished since it will no longer be one of the ‘big three’ EU political and economic players. Germany and France will doubtless gain in influence as a result. With the UK already playing a less influential and strategic role in the EU in the last six or more years, the US had already shifted to prioritising more its relationship with Germany – as the key EU player. This will only intensify from now, ahead of Brexit.

Other major global players will make their own decisions as to what their interests are with respect to the UK post-Brexit. China and India may see the UK as much easier to negotiate deals with – since the UK is a much smaller economic player on its own than when part of the EU. Yet while gaining deals in their own interests, whether economic or foreign policy ones, may seem easier for China or India, they may also be less significant since the UK will no longer be a major player in a very large economic and political bloc. The UK will face serious challenges too: in its shift towards mercantilism, which is what Brexit signifies, will it downgrade ever more human rights concerns? And how will it take on board the interests of its western allies – the EU and US – when doing deals with China? In its shift towards mercantilism, which is what Brexit signifies, will [the UK] downgrade ever more human rights concerns?

In more specific areas, such as international students coming to the UK, the visible xenophobia since the Brexit vote in the UK is likely to impact on the attractiveness of UK universities for potential students from around the world. More than this, as the UK develops a more restrictive immigration policy, this will also impact on the sort of barriers UK nationals face in living and working in the EU and around the world.

So far, it seems the May government may go for an open policy for highly-skilled immigrants, putting more controls on unskilled immigrants – an approach that is full of irony since making work abroad easy still for elites but not for less skilled workers seems to go quite contrary to the ‘anti-elite’ feeling that was part of the Brexit vote.

And little influence on the future EU

The EU is facing many internal challenges – as well as those in its neighbourhood. The travails of the eurozone, and the continuing challenges of high unemployment especially youth unemployment in many southern EU member states, are one set of issues. Growth of populism and loss of trust and confidence in the EU itself is another; challenges to democracy in countries like Poland and Hungary a serious, related issue. Security and counter-terrorism are yet another. Making work abroad easy still for elites but not for less skilled workers seems to go quite contrary to the ‘anti-elite’ feeling that was part of the Brexit vote.

The UK had anyway stepped back from playing any role in resolving the challenges in the eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis – not something it had to do just because it was not in the euro as other non-euro member states engaged much more with the challenges thrown up. And the Brexit vote itself – given the role of UKIP voters in the ‘leave’ vote – is more part of the  EU’s populist challenge than a solution to it.

What is clear from now on – even ahead of the actual date of Brexit (presumably in early 2019) – is that the UK has no influence over the strategic direction of the EU. How and whether the EU can tackle the lack of solidarity and leadership that is threatening its coherence, relevance and stability, and how it tackles specific major issues within that, are issues the EU27 will decide.

Theresa May protested at the EU’s October summit at the EU27 meeting informally in Bratislava in September without the UK. But another informal summit is scheduled for February next year in Malta. The EU, in the face of Brexit, has set itself a new top priority – to keep the EU27 together. And what should be a major foreign policy concern for the UK – the political and economic direction and stability of the EU – is one where it will have from now next to no influence.

That the UK has already lost almost all influence in the EU since the Brexit vote is also something that has received relatively little attention. While the UK will still have a vote in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament until it leaves, the views of its politicians and officials are increasingly discounted in EU bodies. In the European Commission, stories are emerging of UK officials denied imminent and expected promotions, while some top UK officials have already or will soon be retired.

The very fact that the EU27 are, necessarily, now organising and discussing how and what to negotiate with the UK, when May finally triggers Article 50, is itself something that is likely to encourage some new cohesion amongst the EU27 (even despite inevitable differences on negotiating issues at some points). The Brexit vote itself – given the role of UKIP voters in the ‘leave’ vote – is more part of the  EU’s populist challenge than a solution to it.

It is true that the one area where the UK is seen as likely to retain influence is security and counter-terrorism. This is a priority issue for both sides, and one where the UK retains expertise and intelligence that is important for the EU27. Yet exactly how this future UK-EU27 cooperation on security issues will be structured and whether it will be as effective as before is an open question.

The UK will still be a part of NATO too. But being part of NATO while not being an integral part of EU foreign policy discussions, processes and soft and harder security decisions taken within the EU, means that the UK is likely to find itself also weaker not stronger in NATO post-Brexit.

Nor will the UK hold great sway with any individual EU member states. In the past decade or more, the UK had, for instance, the opportunity to build very strong relationships with the new EU member states from central and eastern Europe. The UK had strongly backed eastward enlargement from the start, and initially welcomed Poles, Czechs, and others when they first started coming to the UK after 2004. This set the stage for a potentially strong set of relationships within the EU that could have been beneficial to the UK across many EU policy areas. And it should have meant the UK had some potential influence today as Poland and Hungary head into troubled democratic waters.

But instead, with Brexit and the strong, periodically xenophobic, language against EU citizens in the UK, especially those from central and eastern Europe, the UK has scored yet another own goal. From outside the EU, with its new immigration controls in place, the UK will for sure no longer be an influential partner for those EU member states.

A mercantilist on the sidelines?

The UK is going to spend the next few years negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU27. Attention is going to focus, in the main, on what sort of trade and access deal the UK manages to get and how close it is to the existing full single market access (though, however close that deal is, the UK will not get the voice and vote it has today).

The Brexit process is already absorbing very large amounts of political and civil servant energy and time. That is time not spent on other major challenges – whether domestic, European or global. But it is clear that the UK has already so dissipated its European and global influence and clout by the Brexit vote, an influence that will shrink even further once it is formally outside the EU, that the lack of time to pursue a credible foreign policy may be the least of the UK’s problems.

The Brexit vote has undermined such foreign policy as the UK had, and ensured that the UK will be a side-lined and uninfluential player in Europe and in the wider world for the foreseeable future. At a time of major global and European challenges, the UK’s decision to sideline itself and retreat into mercantilism, is an act of folly with ramifications that are much bigger than the narrower question of whether or not the UK keeps access to the EU’s single market.

About the author

Kirsty Hughes is a writer and commentator on European and international politics. She has worked at a number of leading European thinktanks including Chatham House, Friends of Europe, and the Centre for European Policy Studies and has published extensively including books, reports and as a journalist. She has also worked as a senior political adviser in the European Commission, for Oxfam as head of advocacy, and was CEO at Index on Censorship.


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