Theresa May’s prolonged attempt to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has overshadowed an important, related discussion about the longer-term role of the UK in Europe after Brexit.
From the early 1960s, when the UK first sought entry to the European Economic Community, and since accession in 1973, successive British governments have wrestled with the agenda of the European economic and political integration project. However, across those decades, concerns with EEC/EC/EU issues never overwhelmed a broader British foreign policy for Europe. The UK remained focused on maintaining a leading role in the major political, economic and security issues faced by the continent.
With Brexit in prospect, the UK urgently needs to determine how to maintain a leadership role in Europe. Yet debate on the purpose of UK foreign policy in Europe has been almost non-existent.
Brexit has sharply accelerated what was already a trend in UK foreign policy. Over the last decade – and even before the EU referendum – Britain’s influence in Europe has waned. Underinvestment in diplomacy in other European countries, overreliance on the EU as the channel for diplomacy and a lack of interest by UK parliamentarians have all contributed to the loss of a sense of purpose.
The UK’s foreign policy had become defined by an approach of just muddling through. Although Britain remained respected for its contribution to Europe’s security through the role of its armed forces and its intelligence community, its political leadership was felt to be absent. It is notable that the most successful bilateral initiative in British European foreign policy in the last decade, the Lancaster House Treaties with France, date from 2010 and are focused on security cooperation.
In belated recognition of the under-resourcing of the UK’s diplomacy in other European capitals, there has been a recent modest increase in staffing at British embassies. However, this may do little more than slow the tide of diminishing UK influence.
As an illustration, France and Germany hosted a conference for the countries of the western Balkans last month without the UK – this despite the fact the last major conference on the region, which also launched new UK-funded initiatives, was hosted by London in 2018. Similarly, the UK remains outside the ‘Normandy format’ seeking to manage the conflict in eastern Ukraine that brings together France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.
As a reminder to other European states of its broader contribution to the region, the UK has plans to upgrade its bilateral security relationships with them, most notably Germany and Poland. The UK has also been burnishing its NATO credentials by seeking to play a leading role in any new initiative by the organization. Doubling down on contributions to NATO is not, however, a substitute for a broader European foreign policy strategy.
Despite Brexit, the UK’s economy, society and security will remain intertwined with its European neighbours, of which an overwhelming number of are already EU members or are seeking to join. Consequently, addressing its position as a non-EU country, but still wanting to have influence on the EU and its member states, is going to be a major preoccupation for the UK.
To date much of the debate on a post-Brexit foreign policy has centred around the idea of a ‘Global Britain’ but this has largely side-stepped the issue of where Europe fits. The prime minister, foreign secretary and other ministers have been keen to stress that the UK is leaving the EU and not Europe. It has been stressed that current security partnerships must continue, but much less attention has been given to identifying where the UK’s interests may start to diverge with other European states, and how to manage disagreement.
After Brexit, the UK will remain a major European state, with one of the continent’s largest economies and significant diplomatic, defence and soft power capabilities. But it will sit outside Europe’s main political organization. If the UK wants a leadership role for itself in Europe, there needs to be a clear understanding of where and how it can lead and to what purpose.
Rebooting relationships with major European states will be important. And a British proposal for a new high-level forum with France and Germany would be a starting point. But there also needs to be a broader reflection across Westminster, Whitehall and beyond as to exactly what kind of future Europe the UK would like to play a role in shaping.