The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

03 Jun 2017

Politics and Society

Role in the World

Brexit might have significant consequences for British foreign and security policy. Leaving the Union potentially jeopardises existing arrangements within the EU, notably those relating to counter-terrorism cooperation. During the referendum, concerns were raised that Brexit would reduce the international influence of the UK, in Europe and beyond. In the long term, any negative economic impact of Brexit would further compound the damage.

Given all this, there is strikingly little of substance in any of the manifestos as to how Brexit might impact on Britain’s international role. The Conservatives maintain their insistence that Brexit represents an expression of internationalism, from which a more ‘global’ Britain might emerge. Thus, ‘[o]ur history is a global history; our future must be global too. We believe Britain should play an active, leading role in the world.’

What follows promises to preserve British status as a ‘global power’ through active membership of international institutions including the UN, UNSC, NATO, the G20, G7, Commonwealth and WTO; preserving the UK’s soft power and leadership in areas including climate change, environment, child poverty and development (retaining the 0.7% spending commitment) as well as taking a stronger role in tackling specific issues like modern slavery. In defence, the Conservatives promise to maintain 2% defence spending commitment and spend £178bn on new equipment in the next 10 years.

The impact of Brexit is strongest in terms of emphasis, not substance. Most obviously, the much stronger accent on championing free trade and support for the WTO, and on building new security partnerships with the Commonwealth, as well as preserving the Special Relationship alongside ‘deep and special’ partnership with European allies. A certain amount of care is taken to stress Britain’s continued commitment to liberal values, despite the absence of any explicit reference to human rights in relation to foreign and security policy.

The promise to maintain development spending levels, and determination to address human trafficking arguably stand at odds with the social conservatism of much of the rest of the Tory message and the reputedly realist and modest foreign policy predilections of the prime minister. As ever, what is not included is as interesting as what is. Since her entrance into Downing Street, Theresa May has made it clear that she would like to maintain cooperation over counter-terrorism with European allies.

Yet, counter-terrorism cooperation is mentioned only in passing, and defence agreements with the EU, or with specific European allies, are not mentioned at all. As for Labour, there is little to indicate that foreign policy priorities have been affected by Brexit. The much vaunted return to Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ – initially announced by Emily Thornberry – is not made explicit. Rather, like the Conservatives, Labour promises to deliver ‘a global Britain’. Also like the Conservatives, the manifesto offers no hard headed engagement with what might be politically or economically possible in the wake of Brexit.

Notably, and in contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour manifesto states that to tackle ‘the security threats and challenges we face… it is vital that as Britain leaves the EU, we maintain our close relationship with our European partners. Alongside our commitment to NATO, we will continue to work with the EU on a range of operational missions to promote and support global and regional security.’

Here, the Lib Dems go further still, stating that they will ‘build on the framework for defence co-operation that is already well-established with France, the Netherlands, Germany and other European partners, and promote European defence integration where appropriate by enhancing European defence industry co-operation’.

Aside from their insistence on this, and on the benefits that EU membership brings, the Lib Dems hardly differ from Labour. Their manifesto contains the same blend of internationalism and a greater emphasis on human rights, with a pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence, and 0.7% of GDP on development. Perhaps the most eye catching proposal is the stated intention to suspend arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

Taken together, the three manifestos are strikingly similar both in their ambition and their liberalism. All three parties argue that it is in the UK’s interest, as the Conservative manifesto states, to act as ‘a force for good’ in the world through the promotion of liberal values, broad and deep global engagement and participation in multilateral initiatives in areas like climate change and conflict resolution.

The Conservatives and Labour attach this explicitly to an idea of ‘Global Britain’, one that is in turn attached to Brexit and the notion that it will provide an opportunity for the UK to assume an international role that is at once new and better suited to the modern world, and the realisation of the UK’s true foreign policy identity. But Global Britain is not defined. Most importantly, neither the Conservatives nor Labour make any effort to square away the tension between the vision of a more protected, and in many ways more conservative, British society and economy that each are offering, and an interdependent world.

This may be one of the ‘challenges’ that the Labour manifesto says exists alongside the ‘opportunities’ resulting from Brexit. But the truth is that there is no explanation of either, or the relationship between them, only a statement that the UK will essentially be able to play the same prominent role on the world stage it enjoyed before, only with greater vigour, focus and freedom. This proposition, in light of financial, political and capacity constraints the new government is likely face in coming years as a result of Brexit will be unconvincing to many.

This highlights a final problem (see trade section in our report) which is the lack of any clear sense of prioritisation within the ambitious visions of global Britain on offer. We are left with no idea about which foreign policy and security goals are considered to be most important or, strategically, how each party proposes that the UK will set about achieving them in the coming years in any way that accounts for potentially, reduced finances, or the competing preferences of other actors who may not be the willing partners these manifestos assume them to be.

By Professor Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe and Camilla Macdonald, researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe.


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