Brexit Britain will lose its voice

Denis MacShane asks why envoys are not highlighting the danger

Unknown to the outside world, early every morning in Geneva a group of ambassadors from some of the richest and most powerful countries meet behind closed doors. The session is called ‘Coordination’ and consists of the UK and France, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany with its economic clout, Spain with its Latin American network and the other European Union ambassadors to the UN and related agencies in Geneva such as the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization or the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

 The ambassadors draw up a common position in the name of the EU on issues that are on the daily agenda and where the EU has to relate to the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan and other major players or regional blocs.

 British embassies in the 193 UN member states are now quite thinly staffed and working with EU member state embassies as well as EU missions, gives UK diplomats an extra edge.

 At the end of 2017 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced that it was reducing Britain’s overseas diplomatic presence to increase staff at smaller UK embassies in Europe before Brexit. Even the British mission in Bern is getting two more staff as the Swiss are moving much closer to the EU having reversed their 2014 referendum banning freedom of movement.

 EU embassies are now often better staffed than their British equivalent. Last time I was in Tokyo, the EU missions there had more fluent Japanese speakers than the British embassy. If Foreign Office officials are part of a bigger team, this all adds value to British reporting back to London. Post-Brexit, that relationship between Foreign Office mission and the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm, stops.

 It is one of the curious aspects of Brexit that while everyone focuses on economic or trade questions, and debates staying in or leaving the Single Market or Customs Union, or whether European citizens will be able freely to work or live in Britain, there has been no discussion of what Brexit means for Britain’s geopolitical standing and influence.

 For centuries Britain has expended blood and treasure to keep continental Europe open for our commerce, our people and to ensure no single state, ideology or religion dominated the continent.

 For the past half century that proclaimed goal of British foreign policy has been achieved thanks to the relative integration in the European Community then Union. Nato has played its part, but Nato never opened a frontier, created a market for British goods or allowed Britain to shape broader European foreign policy.

‘It is curious that in contrast to all the debate about the impact of Brexit on business, there has been silence on the impact on British diplomacy’

Even those in favour of a so-called soft Brexit assume that, at a very minimum, we will leave the EU Treaty even if we then maintain in a transition period, and perhaps longer, trade and economic access under a UK version of the Norway arrangement or something similar.

 But this still means that the prime minister and foreign secretary will no longer participate in EU Councils, while British officials in Brussels will no longer help shape foreign policy. It will be a major loss of influence. It is in these gatherings that policies on sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea, or imposing a travel ban on Robert Mugabe and his henchmen, or refusing to allow Croatia to enter the EU until it delivered war criminals to The Hague or other foreign policy lines and positions are adopted.

 It is curious that in contrast to all the debate about the impact of Brexit on British business, with daily seminars and speeches, there has been silence on the impact on British diplomacy and geopolitical influence.

The former Foreign Office perma­nent under-secretary, Sir Simon Fraser, gave a speech at Chatham House in November on how Britain could exert influence after leaving the EU, concluding that successful government at home and a strong economy were pre-requisites for repairing the damage caused by Brexit. 

Andrés Ortega, the Spanish and very Anglophile foreign affairs commentator in Madrid, has said ‘Global Britain’, which is meant to rise phoenix-like from Brexit, is a mirage. But why is there silence from retired ambassadors, some of whom are in the House of Lords? In private, they are often scathing but is it a deontological loyalty to the service that keeps them mum?

 British universities that have European studies departments will lose out. London can hardly keep its place as Europe’s centre for influential think tanks on European and international affairs once British ministers and officials have the same role and weight in deciding European foreign policy as Mexican or Canadian diplomats have in shaping US foreign policy decisions. 

 This sad farewell to the Foreign Office as one of the architects and script writers of European foreign policy has gone unnoticed. It reflects the inward-looking, nation-firstism of MPs and journalists that helped produce the Brexit decision. For Britishdiplomacy it is the end of an era.