What might Brexit mean for the UK’s foreign and security policies? There are at least two elements to any sensible answer to this question. The first involves thinking through and tracing the kinds of constraints and opportunities Brexit might create. We at the UK in a Changing Europe have tried to do this in our security tests, published today.
Obviously, there is much we do not yet know about the form Brexit might take. Nonetheless, whilst much media attention is, understandably, currently focussed on politics, process and personalities, it is time to start thinking about substance.
That means, in the first instance, thinking through the kinds of impact Brexit might have and considering how to identify and, if possible, measure them. Even in the area of foreign policy some things are measurable, such as whether Brexit impacts on the resources devoted to the UK’s global role.
Others are, however, not amenable to quantification and hence clear measurement. Nevertheless, it is worth attempting to assess questions such as, whether Brexit impedes our ability to play a role in ensuring the security of the European neighbourhood, whether it affects the way in which we use international sanctions, whether it frees us to play a more global role with more flexibility to make our own choices independent of our European partners (should we want to do this).
Yet however accurately or inaccurately we manage to assess the Brexit effect, it alone will not determine the country’s global role. Ultimately, this role is for the government to determine. As of yet, however, we know little other than that it has a name: Global Britain.
There has been much discussion of the concept since before the referendum, when the concept became central to a number of Leave supporting groups, including one eponymous outfit created to make the case ‘that Britain’s prosperity is founded on a global vision’.
And the cry has been taken up by the Government itself. In December 2016, Boris Johnson delivered his first major speech setting out his vision for the UK’s future foreign policy. He called the speech “Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit”. In it, he made the case for “a global Britain running a truly global foreign policy”.
The following January, Theresa May made her own call for a Global Britain in her Lancaster House speech, also referencing it a year later in Davos. The Foreign Secretary returned to the theme in February 2018 at Policy Exchange, describing the British people as spiritually global, and adding that “Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity”.
So far, so rhetorical, which is all too common under a government that has proven itself – both before and since last year’s election – better at talking a good game than acting.
There are, to be fair, some areas where the Government has staked out a relatively clear position. The Prime Minister’s remarkable attack on Russia for interference in elections and purveying fake news indicated a willingness to confront the Putin regime.
But on virtually all other big questions of international politics, the catch phrase ‘Global Britain’ is all we have to go on.
Do we, like the Americans, increasingly seem to see China as a threat? Do we share the concerns of countries like New Zealand and Australia, that we have singled out as potential trading partners, about Chinese intentions in the South China Sea? And what of the US? Do we still believe in a special relationship with Donald Trump?
There are an awful lot of questions and as yet very few answers. One might have expected, given the centrality of the ‘Global Britain’ theme, that our Foreign Office might have fleshed the idea out by now, outlining its implications for areas as varied as arms control, development assistance, and our alliances.
Not a bit of it. Global Britain, it seems, is a catchphrase to be declared but not defined. The House of Common Foreign Affairs Committee has attempted to elicit some clarity. It has started its own enquiry into ‘Global Britain’. Its chair, Tom Tugenhadt, has been described as being ‘furious’ at the refusal of the Foreign Office to provide any clear idea of what the term might mean.
There are, of course, many plausible explanations for this staggering lack of clarity. For one, both Ministers and civil servants are struggling with the task of delivering Brexit and have little time for anything else.
Second, insofar as Brexit necessitates immediate attention to be paid to the outside world, this applies to trade rather than anything else. The Government has said quite a lot about the new trading relationships it wishes to cultivate.
Finally, there are those within the Foreign Office itself who mutter that their Minister is, well, not all that interested in foreign policy. Boris Johnson, so the argument goes, has enough on his plate making sure Brexit takes the form he wants to worry about his own portfolio.
Whether this is true or not, the fact is that we remain largely ignorant of what, in practice, our new foreign policy slogan might imply. And at a time when Brexit will necessitate a rethinking not only of our economy but also our international role, this is hardly helpful.
Brexit was supposed to be many things. Among them, it was meant to act as a springboard for a new, confident, global role. It’s about time we were told what Global Britain is, and how it is going to come about.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.