The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

28 Jan 2021

Role in the World

If the UK were to pick a global environment into which it would leap when it left the EU, it would not be the current one.

The global economy has been rocked by a pandemic. Western alliances are frayed after four years of a Trump presidency. China has begun to assert itself more aggressively beyond its region. Democracy is on the retreat and the liberal values that the UK espouses are out of fashion.

In our new Brexit and Beyond report, a group of leading social scientists offer a range of perspectives from around the world on UK foreign policy after Brexit.

As Janet Laible sums up in relation to the UK-US relationship:

“A renewed partnership between the UK and the US may be ‘back’ on the global stage, but the stage itself has fundamentally changed.”

Trying to form a strategic plan in such an environment may be a fool’s errand. As Lawrence Freedman points out in relation to defence, ‘you can never be truly sure of whether the priorities are right until the next conflict comes along’.

The UK Government would argue that this is precisely why a confident British voice is needed, now more than ever. Yet it has played its own part in exacerbating these trends.

The rancorous exit from the EU has weakened the West by driving a wedge between European allies. The UK has threatened to blatantly flout international law.

And, while claiming to be a crusader for free trade across the globe, it has instituted an agreement with its closest and largest trading partner that amounts to perhaps the largest single imposition of trade barriers in history.

The dissonance is difficult to ignore.

Yet there are some positive signs. The UK’s hyperactive trade policy — largely an exercise in replacing existing EU agreements — indicates that countries across the globe are keen to engage with the UK.

What comes of the UK’s attempts to associate with the ASEAN group and join the trade bloc based on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership remains to be seen.

Its wider attempts to expand its presence in the Asia-Pacific — the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ — have yet to bear much fruit, but strategic reorientations take time.

The UK already has important and long-established allies in the region. As Julie Gilson argues, despite the negative economic implications of Brexit for many Japanese companies, there remains ‘a sense of shared cultural values and history with the UK, and these continue to bolster important areas of mutual interest.’

Philomena Murray adds that Australia can ‘provide some inspiration for Britain, as it deepens and consolidates its engagement with the Asia-Pacific’.

The question is whether such a reorientation is credible.

It is well established, not least by the Government’s own analysis, that any number of trade deals will not make up for the economic impact of new trade barriers between the UK and the EU.

UK in a Changing Europe modelling suggests that over ten years this could mean overall UK trade is over 10% lower than it would have been. This is hardly likely to bolster the UK’s free trade credentials.

As L. Alan Winters argues, ‘the EU will always be the natural focus of UK international trade’. There may be good geopolitical reasons to expand the UK’s presence east, but in many areas the UK’s core interests remain in Europe and neighbouring regions.

Nowhere is that clearer than on the island of Ireland. As Etain Tannam explains, Brexit has made a unification referendum more salient.

If Sinn Féin — following their strong performance at the last election in the Republic — get into government, there will be an Irish administration actively advocating for one.

This would increase tensions with the UK’s closest neighbour to levels not seen for a generation. Combined with the pressures on the UK Union in Scotland, the Asia-Pacific may quickly appear folly as the UK seeks to hold itself together, never mind expand its presence abroad.

Plus, the Government has done little to build a sustainable consensus domestically on this reorientation. Labour is sceptical of the Government’s overseas trade and economic agenda, so they would be unlikely to carry forward the ‘tilt’ to the Asia-Pacific with any vigour if they got into government.

The UK’s partners in the region will rightly ask whether this is a sustained UK commitment or a post-Brexit flash in the pan by a Government desperate to prove the worth of its decision.

The UK seems taken with the idea of bolstering an alliance of democratic states by inviting three Asia-Pacific countries – India, Australia and South Korea – to transform the G7 into the D10.

However, it is not just democracy that holds the UK and many of its closest allies together, it is also values. As Rana Mitter points out in relation to the Asia-Pacific region, ‘many regional democracies aren’t all that liberal (think the Philippines, or India); and one of the most ‘like-minded’ countries on containing China, Vietnam, isn’t democratic at all’.

It does little for the UK’s credibility in criticising China for its suppression of civil liberties in, say, Hong Kong if it is also in a democratic alliance with the Modi regime in India.

With the UK’s partners in Europe — with many of whom it does share both democratic and liberal values — relations are severely strained and likely to remain so. As Hussein Kassim points out, ‘the two sides now embody two very different visions of international action.’

The UK has, in essence, rejected the very foundations on which the EU is built, pooling national sovereignty to achieve greater collective influence. Like it or not, the UK presents a threat to the EU model will continue to do so.

Plus, as Simon Usherwood explains, the EU itself is rapidly changing, both in response to the pandemic and the economic transformations it is embarked on. The EU that the UK left arguably has already changed significantly.

Sanctions may provide a case study in what the UK’s new role in the world means. As Matthew Moran points out, in the EU ‘the UK wielded considerable influence over the sanctions policy of a bloc of 28 states with a combined GNP that is only slightly smaller than that of the United States.’ On its own, the UK economy is barely a fifth the size of the EU economy.

Ultimately, this might be what Brexit means for the UK foreign policy: more autonomy, but less impact.

By Matt Bevington, public policy and foreign affairs analyst, UK in a Changing Europe.

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