Richard Whitman
Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme
How would Britain face the realities of life after the EU?
A cross-channel ferry viewed from Calais, France. Photo by Getty Images.A cross-channel ferry viewed from Calais, France. Photo by Getty Images.

If the UK votes to leave the EU, then 2016 becomes year zero for the UK’s relationship with its neighbours in Europe. And an exit from the EU also calls into question Britain’s broader role and position within international affairs and the global economy.

Since its accession in 1973 the UK has progressively enmeshed its economy and society with those of the other EU member states. The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner accounting for 45 per cent of UK exports of goods and services, and 53 per cent of UK imports of goods and services. Membership of the EU has enhanced the UK’s international influence and amplified its national foreign and security policy objectives. And the UK’s foreign and security policy − which extends to trade and development − is embedded within, and pursued through, the EU.

The EU’s foreign and security policy processes have provided the UK with the best of both worlds by allowing the UK freedom to either act independently or collaboratively as it prefers – and this freedom to choose gives the UK greater influence in world affairs than it would have acting alone. EU mechanisms are particularly attractive for a large member state like the UK with historical engagements and widespread commercial interests around the world, and with a more extensive and ambitious foreign and security policy than most members.

Even without Brexit the UK is already facing its most challenging security environment since the middle of the 20th century. The changing structure of international affairs, with the rise of new significant actors such as China, has combined with the recent global financial crisis  to raise questions about the place of the UK in international relations. Adding Brexit to this mix leaves the UK’s place in the world facing unprecedented uncertainty, and creates the conditions for a new vote on Scottish independence if the majority of the Scottish public voted to remain within the EU.

Brexit: New questions for the UK

A Brexit raises broader questions for the UK on the orientation and objectives of its foreign and security policy. EU membership has been a key component of the UK’s diplomacy and foreign policy since 1973, so alteration of that status requires extensive recalibration of the UK’s relationship with its European neighbours. Negotiating an exit from the EU itself would occupy extensive diplomatic and political resources for an extended period − possibly up to a decade − which would then be unavailable to focus on the extensive and pressing set of security challenges currently faced by the UK.

Whatever agreement is reached on a new relationship between the UK and the EU (particularly if it seeks to preserve freedom of movement) there would be considerable political pressure to have this agreement validated via a new referendum and then ratified by each of the EU’s member states and by the European Parliament. Any member state feeling aggrieved by the UK’s exit from the EU would be in no haste to ratify.

But, regardless of the relationship the UK negotiates post-Brexit, Britain would be removed from the EU’s decision-making institutions and its ability to influence EU law-making would be restricted to diplomacy with the European Commission or indirectly through other EU member states. The UK would need to significantly boost its diplomats and diplomacy in EU member states to seek to maintain influence.

Brexit: Potential costs to the EU

Losing one of its large member states raises questions about the EU’s capacity to weather future challenges − especially on the heels of the eurozone and migration crises – leaving commentators to debate if the EU may now be on the road to dissolution.

The UK’s departure also diminishes the EU’s collective foreign policy, by removing a significant player in international engagement and a range of diplomatic, military, development and other foreign policy resources, as well as a major advocate for a de-regulated, market-orientated free-trading agenda.  

The UK’s voice will also be lost in setting the EU agenda on development policy, international environment diplomacy, internal security and trade policy. And the UK would lose the capacity to multiply its own national foreign policy objectives through the EU and the power that it exercises in each of these areas.

Brexit: The impact on key bilateral relationships

Most immediately, a Brexit throws the UK’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland into crisis. The UK is Ireland’s most important trading partner, Ireland enjoys a common travel area with the UK and, crucially, Dublin has seen the UK’s EU membership as a framework through which the peace process in Northern Ireland has been facilitated. Brexit could even trigger an unravelling of the political settlement there.

But other key bilateral relationships would also be greatly complicated. The UK has recently invested heavily in its relationship with France, with the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties creating a new Franco-British defence relationship rooted in collaboration on nuclear weapons technology and increased interoperability of armed forces. France has also persisted with putting a Franco-British coordination at the heart of a successful EU foreign, security and defence policy − despite the reticence of recent UK governments to develop an EU defence policy.

An EU departure would also place the UK at odds with the United States’ long-term strategy, pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations, which promotes EU and NATO enlargement as key tenets of transatlantic relations. The UK would no longer have leverage on future enlargements of the EU or be able to use its influence to ensure that EU defence policies developed in a manner that strengthens rather than duplicates NATO. This would most certainly result in the UK being considered of diminished significance to future US administrations − the Special Relationship would no longer be quite so special.

Brexit: The long term

Brexit campaigners argue that leaving the EU liberates the UK economy from the burden of excessive regulation, and that the UK’s diplomatic and political bandwidth is also freed from the weight of EU institutions, and its decision-making processes. In this scenario, it is argued, the UK could then fully use diplomatic and military capabilities alongside its soft power, its position as an unrivalled international financial centre and its memberships of the ‘Anglosphere’ and the Commonwealth, to seek new international influence especially with rising powers.

However, a less optimistic future looks more likely – one where the UK’s place in the world is diminished and the British government is forced to fight the perception that Britain’s international role and influence is shrinking. Brexit also raises questions about the UK’s overall international importance, possibly leading other countries to question whether membership of key bodies – such as the UN Security Council − is still appropriate. Brexit means the UK loses the EU as a vehicle for providing for significant diplomatic efficiencies, or to address foreign policy and security issues via a multilateral format with 27 partners. As the EU foreign policy-making system does not currently allow non-members to participate in its processes, other mechanisms will need to be found to resolve disagreements and pursue collective positions on issues of common concern.

Regardless of which future is the true outcome post-Brexit, the UK’s foreign and security policy will be preoccupied with reorganizing its foreign relations and, by extension, how to influence the EU’s policy agenda from the outside. The EU will remain a globally significant trading bloc, the largest provider of overseas development aid, a major player in international environmental diplomacy and a key player in European diplomacy and security. Therefore, whether or not Brexit becomes a reality, the UK will remain intertwined with the policies, preoccupations and crises of the EU and its remaining member states.

This article draws on pieces published previously by The UK in a Changing Europe and DGAP.

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