The issue of foreign policy was greatly neglected during last year’s European Union (EU) referendum, however, the consequences of the Brexit vote will have a long-standing impact on the UK’s role in the world. Whilst the UK will remain a member of NATO and retain its permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), through Brexit, the UK will crucially lose influence on the world stage, through one of the organisations which had been able to magnify it the most – the EU.
Post-Brexit, the UK will no longer be necessarily able to count on the support of 27 of its closest allies and friends in fulfilling British policy aims. All this comes at a time when funding for our diplomatic service is being heavily and continuously slashed. Diplomats will be required to do more and more on the world stage with fewer and fewer resources, and all this outside the formal EU foreign policy structures which have been so useful for furthering British interests around the world.
Through the UK’s membership of the European Union, the UK has, in its participation in the Common Foreign & Security Policy, the Common Security & Defence Policy and the Foreign Affairs Councils, been able to lead a continent of 28 like-minded states on issues of key strategic importance. This has included combating piracy off the coast of Somalia, stopping people-smugglers in the Mediterranean, pushing for action on the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement, and imposing sanctions on Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine.
It is not just institutions but also leading British politicians who have directly helped to shape EU foreign policy over the years for the benefit of this country. This has included Lord Chris Patten, European Commissioner for External Relations from the late-90s to the mid-00s and more recently, Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs from 2009 until 2014 who was able to bring Serbia and Kosovo on a path towards reconciliation, and was also instrumental in kick-starting the Iran nuclear talks.
During last year’s referendum, the Leave campaign alleged that Brexit would be an opportunity for the UK to re-engage on the world stage, to be some kind of swashbuckling 19th century power, proudly ruling the waves. However, Brexit will jeopardise British influence on the world stage, and it is unclear how leaving the EU will be offset by joining any viable alternative structures. Indeed, there has been a lack of any serious proposals by the Government of a re-orientation of British foreign policy, other than the vacuous slogan of “global Britain”.
The one obvious alternative – the United States – is proving to be less and less viable with every day that passes, where the “special relationship” is now special, for all the wrong reasons: The US President has re-tweeted posts by the far-right UK organisation Britain First, lashed out at Prime Minister Theresa May and has routinely attacked the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. US foreign policy interests are also diverging from British ones on issues such as Iran, climate change and Russia.
Indeed, the post-Brexit loss of influence is already materialising: for the first time since its creation in 1946, there will be no British judge at the International Court of Justice and the Government – desperate to provide that it can negotiate trade deals at any cost – has chosen to push human rights to one side, whether it be in relations with China or Saudi Arabia.
Nobody voted to diminish Britain’s standing in the world but that is precisely what is happening through Brexit. If this is not what the country desires, everybody has the right to keep an open mind as to whether the Brexit path is the right one for the country to go down.
Thomas Cole is head of policy at Open Britain