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12 Jun 2021

Relationship with the EU

This year is a uniquely British year in foreign affairs. Following swiftly on from the signing of the Brexit deal, the UK has chaired the UN Security Council, and will host the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow in November. In the middle of it all comes this month’s G7 summit, to be hosted by the UK in Carbis Bay, Cornwall.

The UK holds the G7 presidency, and therefore sets the agenda for the first in-person meeting of its leaders since the outbreak of the pandemic.

It is a significant moment in the international calendar, and thus a major opportunity for post-Brexit Britain to demonstrate its influence in international affairs.

So will it succeed? The most obvious way for the UK to do so would be through a clear demonstration of the values of “Global Britain”. Yet the chances of success on this front look slim.

The term Global Britain was harnessed by Theresa May shortly after the EU referendum in 2016 to emphasise that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union did not mean a retreat into insularity.

Her then-foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, articulated it as a “truly global foreign policy”, but the phrase has regularly been critiqued both for its glibness and apparent lack of practical significance.

The recent Integrated Review was expected to address this. Yet the prime minister’s foreword evokes a continued emphasis on ambition over detail, via a shopping-list of buzzwords: “stronger, safer, more prosperous . . . agility and speed of action . . . match-fit . . . unique soft power . . . science and tech superpower . . . global services, digital and data hub . . . green industrial revolution”.

Euro-Atlantic security will be prioritised, Russian and Chinese threats will be addressed, while the UK will also, we are told, “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific.

The scale of ambition is enormous and, frankly, unfeasible for a medium-sized power like the UK. Global Britain, in short, still lacks clarity and coherence.

The impending G7 summit could have been expected to bring greater clarity to British thinking, but such an evolution does not seem apparent.

The UK has at least established a clearer set of policy priorities for the G7: the global recovery from Covid-19, championing free trade, tackling climate change and promoting shared values.

But the problem remains that these are not backed up by substantive policy work, in the manner that, for example, Joe Biden has done in the USA through rapid domestic legislation on climate issues, and a clear re-orientation vis-à-vis the EU and China.

So far, the UK has put grand gestures first. On trade, the rush to get a deal with Australia done before the G7 is putting a symbolic achievement — with a nugatory impact on the UK economy — before the long-term concerns of British farming, which fears being undercut.

On climate, a target to cut carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 (compared with 1990 levels) sets a very good international benchmark.

But the UK has not yet delivered the domestic policy required to back it up, with the Committee on Climate Change assessing that it is not on track to meet its longer-term targets.

On the global health and economic recovery from Covid-19, the two most striking aspects of UK policy show a regression from leadership: its (along with the rest of the G7’s) limited commitment to global redistribution of its vaccine supply, and the recently suspended commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its GDP on overseas aid.

If the G7 summit is to be a demonstration of Global Britain leading the world towards more ambitious targets, it must first convince others that its own aims are sincere, and not mere posturing.

On the available evidence, this seems highly unlikely. And yet, for all this obfuscation and ambiguity, the June summit could still end up as a success for the UK.

Why? Because the international context is one where British performativity — and the softer elements of its diplomacy — could well matter more than its substantive policy vision.

Multilateralism and international statecraft are in need of revival. The recalcitrance — and at times outright hostility — of Donald Trump towards international organisations and agreements caused significant harm.

The pandemic didn’t help either. Summits via Zoom have allowed leaders to make vague, grandiose statements without being challenged on the detail, robbing diplomatic events of their definitive essence.

Yet the momentum is shifting. In-person diplomacy is back. The presidency of Joe Biden has brought renewed US support for international alliances, alongside rapid and serious advancement in the decarbonisation of the world’s largest economy.

The UK, as host of both the G7 and Cop26, is in a unique position to harness this momentum for the good of the multilateral system.

That expressly means not trying to impose its own Global Britain policy agenda, and instead creating an atmosphere for much-needed collaborative dialogue.

It means making Joe Biden feel welcome on his first visit to the club. It means looking for common ground: for instance, speaking to the egos and interests of other G7 members who also show ambition on climate change.

It means being sensitive to points of tension: for instance, Angela Merkel’s criticism of US support for India and South Africa’s proposal to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents, and finding ways to smooth the edges.

It means, fundamentally, establishing a positive atmosphere, allowing the G7 summit leaders to enjoy being back in the international media spotlight, and not treating the event as a platform for boosterism of the UK.

It can also mean thinking about ways to improve multilateralism. The UK’s invitation of guest countries — Australia, India, South Africa, South Korea — to this year’s G7 summit is one interesting challenge to the old boys’ club undertones of the organisation’s present membership (albeit with serious questions to consider around the democratic credentials of India).

All this requires careful political and diplomatic choreography: at such major multilateral events, the symbolic and gestural elements are an important foundation on which policy progress is made.

It is thus more important for the UK to be a skilled host than a policy leader in Cornwall. And there are reasons to think that such a role could be well suited to the diffuse, stylised nature of Boris Johnson and his Global Britain project.

By Joël Reland, public and foreign policy researcher at UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in Times Red Box.

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