The world was caught before unaware and unprepared for the surprise result of the 2016 referendum offered to the British people on the future membership of the European Union. Media and political elites had called it for ‘remain’ and the consequences of the ‘leave’ vote were made even more complex by the election by the Conservative Party of the new Prime Minister in Theresa May, who didn’t support ‘leave’ herself.
Prime Minister May put ‘leave’ personalities in key positions in her government and the will of the people – those 17+ million who voted to leave – set the country in a direction that none were clear on. One common denominator that unites many in the current British Government is a desire to push back against the narrative that the Brexit vote signified a retreat of Britain from the rest of the World.
Whilst the days of Britain ‘ruling the waves’ and much of the world through its Empire are long gone, the UK still punches above its weight in terms of global influence. After all, no other country can claim to be a member of the P5 on the United Nations Security Council, G7, NATO and the Commonwealth.
Yet leaving the EU and a decline in influence amongst a still emerging EU foreign policy structure – typified through the actions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council and the increased prominence and profile of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (currently Federica Mogherini) will take some adjustment.
For those arguing that leaving the EU will result in a re-calibrated but still essentially close and strong UK-Europe relationship, the recent suspected poisoning by Russia of Yulia and Sergei Skripal, brought out a unified response and the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats from across European capitals.
One of the emerging concepts that has developed to fit into the post-Brexit space as been the concept of ‘Global Britain’. All manner of difficult questions as to British foreign policy have been directed to this concept. British MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee described it in March as a “meaningless slogan, currently underpinned by no clear political, strategic or funding analysis”.
Yet whilst it may lack detail the commitment to a ‘Global Britain’ could be a useful and important benchmark to decisions made in the future. So, whilst it may be able to retrofit on some of the difficult questions that have bedeviled the EU or the wider world to date, it could be a prism of future decisions that could see the UK deepen its commitment and relationships with multilateral institutions and complex alliances than ever before.
Britain was never a fully comfortable member of the EU, hence its continued distancing of itself from further and fuller integration, most obviously typified by its rejection of the single currency in the form of the Euro. Paradoxically if the UK can play to its strengths unencumbered by the internal fractures on the issue of EU membership itself, it could player a more active and ‘global’ role.
Let’s not forget that the UK spends more per-capita on its overseas development and humanitarian budget that most countries and remains in the top five spenders on Defence. Being an aid superpower, with a significant and respected military that specialises in particular nimble and deployable disciplines, backed by a properly resourced diplomatic service that whilst hugely respected has hemorrhaged capacity and linguistic expertise in recent years, could make the UK a more confident and decisive foreign policy actor.
The word ‘resourced’ is key here as ever since the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, policies of ‘Austerity’ and belt tightening have taken their toll across the institutions and arms of the British State. If the country is to pivot from Brexit to a more ‘Global’ role then it needs to ensure that its mechanism of power and influence are fit for purpose and able to delivery of strategies that emerge in the post-2019 world.
What’s also missing is leadership on specifics, this has led to justified concerns as to ‘Global Britain’ being a branding exercise over a more substantive philosophy. Sadly, the continued short-term difficulties over what Brexit should and shouldn’t be, that oscillates on a week by week basis, makes any horizon setting a low priority when compared to the trenches of everyday politics.
Thus, post-Brexit British foreign policy remains an uncertain and amorphous concept, a space waiting to be filled, an opportunity waiting to be grasped or a disaster waiting to happen. Soon all will be revealed when the talking stops and the Brexit actually happens next year.