Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
British policy towards the MENA region is largely independent of the EU, so would not be radically reshaped by a Brexit – but the opportunities to work on peace, rule of law or human rights would diminish.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks with foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Jeddah on 29 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images.British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks with foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Jeddah on 29 May 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Leaving the EU would not in itself be a game-changer for the UK’s role in the Middle East—but this is partly because Britain already misses many opportunities to work with the EU there. The UK’s relative military strength, colonial history, expertise and elite relationships all shape a MENA policy that is more bilateral than multilateral.

But British influence is patchy, and Brexit would make it more so. A post-Brexit Britain would likely double down on its existing geographic areas of strength, and would put particular priority on trade and defence with the Gulf; relations with North Africa could end up being neglected, and the Middle East Peace Process would probably remain on the back burner. In contrast, a vote to remain gives the UK an opportunity to review how it can make more of its EU membership in its approach to the region.

Implications of Brexit

Opponents of Brexit often see leaving the EU as a step to isolationism – or international irrelevance. Yet a post-Brexit Britain would likely want to demonstrate that it was still a force in the world. For the sake of domestic security and economic concerns, Britain would still need its allies, in the Middle East as well as in the EU. The MENA region will remain important for trade and investment links ($18 billion of British exports went to MENA in 2014), diaspora communities on both sides, counterterrorism cooperation and defence priorities.

Leaving the EU is unlikely to have a major impact on the UK’s ability to project force in the Middle East. Any military interventions, as in the past, would involve ad hoc coalitions or partnerships with leading powers like the US or France, rather than the larger and oft-divided EU. A post-Brexit Britain would work more closely with Anglophone and Middle Eastern allies, including more cooperation with militaries in Jordan and the Gulf. It would be keen to demonstrate its relevance to the US, and to the UN, especially as some campaigners for Security Council reform might question whether Britain should retain its permanent seat. Britain would continue to uphold UN arms control processes, including the nuclear deal with Iran.

But there are some areas of UK Middle East policy that would be more affected by Brexit. First, there could be a shift in priorities. In the immediate aftermath of a vote to leave there would be considerable economic uncertainty. Foreign policy would almost certainly become more focused on trade and economic imperatives, and from a weaker position. This would preoccupy policy-makers’ attention, and probably leave less time and resources for promoting grander plans to change or stabilize Middle Eastern politics. Instead, interventions would be more likely to focus on specific threats (in the immediate future, fighting ISIS). Building trade relations with the wealthier Middle Eastern countries, primarily in the Gulf, would become even more of a priority than it is today, while relations with North Africa could end up being de-prioritized.

The Middle East Peace Process would also likely remain neglected. The EU is the biggest donor to Palestine and largest trade partner for Israel, as well as being a member of the largely moribund but potentially revivable Quartet. The UK independently would still retain importance on the issue as a member of the UN Security Council but it would have no formal say in forming a collective EU position. The UK would be able to contribute its views, as Norway does, but once the EU has reached a common position, then Britain’s influence would be minimal.

The second area where Brexit could matter is trade deals. The EU has trade arrangements with a number of countries across the region and its trade leverage makes it a heavyweight player in those parts of the Middle East that rely overwhelmingly on Europe for their trade. However, European tariff barriers are heavily criticized by southern Mediterranean countries who want better market access.

In the short term, Brexit would mean that the UK would need to renegotiate its trade relations with a number of countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Israel, all currently covered by EU association agreements. There could be political implications which flow from this trade disruption. For example, the UK would probably be more reluctant to place diplomatic pressure on Israel over the absence of a peace process, given that it would need to negotiate a new economic cooperation agreement.

The UK would have far less leverage negotiating on a bilateral basis, but it would also have some more flexibility. Notably, a non-EU Britain could agree to drop or reduce tariff barriers on agricultural goods that it does not produce itself, like olive oil. For instance, Tunisia, a fledgling democracy, is the world’s second-largest exporter of olive oil and has been seeking better access to EU markets, but lobbying from Greece, Spain and Italy, themselves major producers, has limited the market access that the EU has been willing to give.

The third area is development. Tackling the root causes of the issues that Britain and other European countries see as core security threats – state failure, extremism, the refugee crisis – will ultimately require much greater economic development and cooperation between the Middle East and Europe, to generate hope that living standards in the Middle East can be on a path to convergence with the West. A post-EU Britain would probably still be one of the leading development actors in the region – depending on the shifts of post-Brexit politics and the extent of economic constraints – but would accomplish less than a larger Europe could do together. When it manages to act as a bloc, Europe has unrivalled economic weight and development clout.

The UK Department for International Development’s 2015 aid policy review has emphasized that the UK’s future aid budget will be restructured to tackle global challenges that directly threaten British interests. This will include more support for the response to the Syrian crisis and other MENA countries, and more work to tackle the causes of mass migration and terrorism. Such a shift implies the UK is moving closer to the EU’s long-held strategic focus on the southern neighbourhood. Whether inside or outside Europe, Britain has a national interest in maintaining a development role in the Middle East – but a larger, collective European effort would be more productive. Conversely, the normative power of the EU as a model for economic cooperation, political liberalization and the rule of law has been damaged and challenged in recent years by the EU’s own internal problems. It would likely be undermined further if Britain left – especially if the process proved rancorous.

Implications of Remain

If there is a vote to remain however, there is an opportunity for the UK to get more from its relationship with the EU. Diplomatic opportunities in North Africa could be seized most effectively working in concert with other European countries. For example, the UK and other key European powers agree that Egypt’s security would be better served by a more inclusive approach to politics, but do not have an answer as to how to advance this aim with a military-backed government that rejects such thinking.  If they are to make progress, they will be better served by advancing a common European line.

The UK is not at present utilizing its membership of the EU to great effect in the MENA region. In the areas where it has older and stronger ties than most other European countries, it is tempted to think it can dispense with the EU. In the areas where it is less plugged in – especially North Africa − it is simply less interested, and so is failing either to take advantage of the opportunity to work with EU structures, or to fully develop its bilateral relationships. But since so many of the country’s future security challenges are linked to Europe’s neighbourhood, the UK will need to focus on fragility and resilience in this part of the world.

At present, the UK government is adamant that it will not participate in new EU arrangements to spread the wave of refugees from Syria and elsewhere more evenly across European countries, instead preferring to rely on Britain’s island geography to keep people at a distance. The British government’s policy that Syrian refugees are better off being hosted in Syria’s neighbours is already inadequate, and is undermining its reputation in the Middle East—where tiny Lebanon and Jordan are massively overstretched. This inadequacy will become increasingly obvious the longer the conflict goes on for, while if there is a peace settlement that keeps Bashar al-Assad in power, many Syrians who fled his forces will remain refugees for a very long time.  Remaining in the EU offers the hope that the UK can make a constructive contribution to European responses to the refugee crisis.

If the UK government wants to make good on its rhetoric about exercising soft power and advancing the rule of law, it is far better placed to do this through the collective normative and bargaining power of the EU than it would be alone. The sheer size of the EU also means that it is better placed to focus on issues of human rights and international law than individual member states, who are more often preoccupied by the fear of losing trade opportunities. The EU is simply too big to boycott – note the Israeli government’s limited response to the EU’s 2015 decision on labelling goods from Israeli settlements.

European enthusiasm for cooperating with Arab countries on political development tends to ebb and flow. Grand pronouncements from the Barcelona Process to the early response to the Arab Spring have not led to sustained long term development partnerships – or democratization. Nonetheless, European institutions can be somewhat better insulated from the waxing and waning of such political commitments than individual member state governments, which are more closely tied to specific election cycles.

Europe as a whole has struggled to deal with the recent series of interconnected crises in the Middle East, largely because it has been preoccupied with internal divisions. If Britain remains, the EU will have more chance of turning its attentions to the multiple emergencies on its borders.

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