Back in 1948, Winston Churchill had urged Britain to balance its role between western Europe, the empire, and the US.
At that point, the UK was the only country at the centre of these three interlinking circles of influence, but by 1960 things had changed: continental Europe had recovered, and the empire had faded, and Dean Acheson famously warned the UK that it had lost its empire but not yet found a role.
The six founder members of the European Community (EC) did not have a foreign policy until the 1970s, as early defence and foreign policy initiatives had failed.
However, as they came to think about extending their agenda to diplomacy and external economic relations, Britain wanted to find a way to participate in EC foreign policy making, seeking to enhance its own position by working with and through the EC.
So, when the Britain was at last allowed to join the EC in 1973, it was ready to grab the new opportunity that the EC’s foreign policy, called European Political Cooperation (EPC) offered. Britain liked EPC: it was cheap and visible, but still state-based and inter-governmental.
A whole new structure of cooperation was set up, with regular meetings at foreign minister and head of state level. There was cooperation on declarations and diplomatic positioning; and an apparatus to enable high-speed and secure communication between foreign ministries (COREU).
The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), with its membership including the US and the Soviet Union and its satellites, ran throughout the last decades of the cold war.
CSCE gave Britain another diplomatic and coordinating role inside the EC, promoting multi-lateral diplomacy to encourage human rights and freedoms, and peaceful change in Europe.
The CSCE played a major role in breaking down cold war barriers in the region, so European norms as well as policies were increasingly established.
Broadly, Britain’s assumption was that EC foreign policy coordination, alongside enlargement of the EC, was all part of the process of building a peaceful Europe on both sides of a continent divided by the cold war.
But it was not all plain sailing. EC states failed to respond quickly and collectively to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 (everyone was on holiday), but the British then led on establishing a crisis response procedure for the future.
When the cold war ended, the EC’s foreign policy coordination mechanisms held together – just – as Germany was unified and the barriers between east and west in Europe vanished.
The EC mechanisms were instrumental in keeping NATO together to underpin this seismic change, and NATO solidarity underpinned the work of the EC.
At the same time, the EPC was transformed into the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). A commitment was made that the EU would help, if asked, in crisis management, disaster and humanitarian management outside its borders.
The position of the EU’s chief diplomat (the High Representative for Foreign Affairs) was created by 2009: the post was partially incorporated into the Commission, and was first held by Catherine Ashton, who was British. The EU diplomatic service also grew, and it managed EU diplomacy in the difficult years of the 1990s and 2000s.
There was also space for the British and French together to lead on the possibility of national military forces being used under the EU flag, but under national command.
This led to the St Malo declaration of 1998, and mediating between US/NATO and the otherwise largely ‘civilian’ EU was a new challenge.
By the mid 2000s, police, judicial officers, naval and land based military forces were able to act in crisis and humanitarian situations – but only when asked. This happened in the Balkans, off the coast of Somalia in Operation Atalanta, and in dozens of other cases, backed by military coordination committees in Brussels.
There was close cooperation with NATO – ‘double-hatting’, and always with national planners. Security demands were changing, and the policies were developing to meet the new security challenges.
How has all this affected British foreign policy?
Being a group of nine states (on the accession of the UK, Ireland and Denmark to the EC), and eventually 28 (after successive rounds of EU enlargement) meant inevitable difficulties of coordination and collective learning.
But at the same time, British leadership in diplomatic, planning and strategic matters was very much in demand, and so British post-imperial decline was staved off via the EU.
As one foreign secretary put it, Britain was still able to punch above her weight, and her national status and influence was amplified by membership of the EU, as well as by being in NATO and other international institutions like UN.
The EU had become an important institutional platform for British and EU soft power and influence, both globally and regionally, from the Balkans, to Iran and the Middle East, and Asia.
At the same time, Britain still had its own independent foreign policies – for example over the Falklands. The EU did not generally constrain Britain, but encouraged what was called a ‘Common European Voice’ in international affairs, albeit still quite low-key.
Security at home is as important as delivering security overseas. The UK played a major role in developing EU security provisions, like the European Arrest Warrant, coordination on policing and database provision.
Dialogue with the US over NATO also placed UK in a lead position in NATO/EU relations: Germany had been a reluctant foreign policy activist, and France had withdrawn from the NATO military command structure until 2009.
Sustaining this transatlantic balance will now be much harder for the UK. ‘Bilateralism’, or ‘mini-lateralism’ are much talked-about alternatives to collective action inside the EU for an independent UK still seeking to exercise considerable power in the international system.
A strong Anglo-French bilateral relationship, developed during our membership of the EU, will be absolutely essential for both major, nuclear, hard powers.
Yet while the UK is trying to build new relationships with EU and non-EU states, EU partners will inevitably prioritise their own relations with each other, and with their own global partners. It will be tough for the UK, which is now an outsider, to avoid being accused of undermining the EU.
Britain’s post-Brexit foreign and security policy reset may become a new and significant marker of Britain’s post-imperial role. Britain has come full circle: empire and commonwealth both largely gone, Brexit done, and the US an uncertain partner.
As Acheson said nearly 60 years ago, the UK will once again be desperately seeking a new role for itself in the world.
By Anne Deighton, Professor of European International Politics, Oxford University.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.