Project: Europe Programme

Director, Chatham House

Given the international context, it is in Britain’s best interests to treat Europe as the ‘inner circle’ of its foreign, security and international economic policy, writes Robin Niblett.

British Prime Minister David Cameron sits with other world leaders at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia on 15 November 2014. Photo by Handout/Getty.British Prime Minister David Cameron sits with other world leaders at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia on 15 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

The British government’s approach since 2010 of seeking to enhance the UK's relations with the world’s emerging powers while balancing these with relationships with the United States and Europe has had only limited success. With constrained resources, and in the face of intense global economic competition, mounting security challenges and decaying international institutions, trying to commit the UK equally on all three fronts will not succeed in the future.

This paper calls for a different mindset and strategy towards the UK’s place in the world – one in which Britain is surrounded by three concentric circles of influence:

  • The first or ‘inner circle’ is the EU, the region with which the UK’s relationships need to be strongest and most active.
  • The ‘second circle’ consists of the protective and enabling set of economic and security relationships with the US.
  • Finally, an ‘outer circle’ comprises the UK’s other key bilateral and institutional relationships.

Should the UK vote to remain in the EU, policy-makers should commit to placing the EU at the centre of Britain's foreign policy, using the country’s economic weight, diplomatic skills and networks to play a leading role in leveraging more effective EU-wide policies.
Should the country vote to leave, the UK and the EU would enter an extended period of dislocation before arriving at a new, mutually diminished settlement. British policy-makers would be forced to deal and negotiate with the EU on critical policy issues from the outside. It is hard to see how that could lead to EU policies or an international context more in line with British interests.                          

Despite its structural flaws and competing national interests, the EU offers the best prospects for managing the rapidly changing global context, for three main reasons:

First, it allows the UK to leverage the EU’s global economic weight to enhance the UK’s economic interests internationally, including securing beneficial trade agreements and contributing to EU and global standard-setting and rule-writing. Conversely, leaving would require the UK to renegotiate over 100 trade agreements, and would disadvantage UK interests in EU markets, including making EU governments less likely to liberalize services.                          

Second, it gives the UK a say in designing new EU initiatives to strengthen both British and European security in the face of diverse threats, whether managing the flow of refugees and other emigrants; combatting terrorism; or managing a more assertive Russia and the fallout from a disintegrating Middle East.                          

Third, cooperating with other EU members offers a way of maximizing opportunities to find joint solutions to shared problems, whether in terms of responding to climate change; managing growing cyber insecurity; reversing the decay of governance in failing states; or combating the rise of dangerous non-state actors.