With an inevitable loss of influence in Europe, former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon says Britain must redouble its efforts elsewhere to retain its say in global affairs
It now looks as though Britain will remain a member of the European Union until at least 2019. The laborious process of preparing a negotiating position, coordinating government aims and deciding what exactly Brexit means will take at least until the end of the year. Britain is then expected to invoke clause 50 of the Lisbon treaty which sets in motion the process of leaving the EU, and there will be hard bargaining with Brussels for two years after that.
Does this make Britain a lame duck for the next three years? Certainly, within the EU Britain will play very little real role. Though formally still a member and bound by all existing EU commitments, London’s influence on the future of the 500-million strong bloc will be minimal. The British commissioner in Brussels will not be given any meaningful role. Britain’s permanent representative to the EU will be preoccupied with the process of withdrawal. British MEPs may continue to make some noise in Strasbourg, but they will have little sway in the European Parliament.
But Theresa May’s government is determined to show that Britain cannot simply now be written off by its former partners. She has repeatedly insisted that Britain will play a “full role” in Europe and wants to have a strong future influence on European security, foreign policy and economic affairs. British officials are hoping to retain full access to the internal market and there is also talk about future informal cooperation with EU countries on police and security matters. Indeed, it almost looks to some people as though Brexit may mean little change except a halt to the monthly cheques to Brussels, a curb – but not an end – to EU migration to Britain and an empty chair at all the regular meetings where Britain used to join its partners in deciding the EU’s future. Some Brexit campaigners are already restless and are warning the government that they will accept nothing less than a total break with Europe.
Inevitably there will be a loss of influence in Europe. Britain is therefore expected to redouble its efforts in other areas to retain as much say in global affairs as possible. Nato is the obvious forum. Britain is one of only a handful of countries in the alliance devoting two per cent of its annual budget to defence. It is probably the strongest political and military ally of the United States and will make vigorous efforts to ensure that Washington does not now downplay the British role. Britain’s armed forces, with long experience of conflict abroad, are likely to play big roles still in the Middle East, in remaining Nato commitments to Afghanistan and the Balkans, and in United Nations peacekeeping. And Britain may use the Nato forum especially to influence foreign policy decisions in those new East European members of Nato who have also joined the EU and are aghast at Britain’s vote to quit.
Retaining political influence in the world is important not only for Britain’s prestige and national interest; it is also essential if Britain is to justify its continued permanent membership of the UN Security Council. For over a decade there have been mutterings in New York about the need to reform the UN power structure. Large countries such as India, Japan, Germany, Brazil and Nigeria have been insisting they too should have a P5 seat. There were attempts under Kofi Annan to give them permanent Security Council membership, but this raised the issue of whether Britain and France still qualified to keep their seats. They both argued that they represented all the EU members in the Security Council. Britain has therefore always been an active UN member, taking the lead in drafting Security Council resolutions, offering troops for peacekeeping operations and making much of its ‘soft power’ influence of language and culture throughout the world.
Soft power is also an area where Britain will seek to expand its influence. The English language, overwhelmingly now a global language, brings huge benefits to Britain – not only in attracting tourists but in making Britain an attractive investment centre for Asian and other companies where English is the only familiar foreign language. British culture is also a booming export: films, television programmes, theatre and pop music find a ready market overseas, and are important in boosting Britain’s global visibility and influence. This market depends little on membership of the EU; indeed, Brexit may actually help British soft power, giving the government greater influence in directing state aid to sectors that underpin soft power.
The Commonwealth is a forum where Britain’s soft power has always been an important element in keeping the 53-nation body together. In recent years Britain has tended to neglect the Commonwealth, playing down its influence and paying little attention to institutional links. Many analysts date the neglect from Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973, when London sacrificed its economic ties with the Commonwealth and tariff preferences in order to qualify for the common agricultural policy, the reduction in tariffs and other institutional links with Europe. Now, some Commonwealth cheerleaders insist, Britain can again turn its attention to the wider global body, which has deep historical roots and strong political, educational and cultural links.
Much of Whitehall sees this as unrealistic. The Commonwealth can never be a trading or political substitute for the European Union – it is too diverse, too distant and too varied in its levels of economic development. But Britain may now give greater attention to a body that has felt slighted by a lack of interest from almost all Britons except the Queen. And some of the older developed members such as Canada and Australia are already expecting the new British department for international trade to make them a focus of a new British export drive.
Staying open for business will nevertheless be difficult for Britain as it becomes preoccupied with tough bargaining with Brussels. And indeed it may be tough. Several of the larger EU members, especially France, are in no mood to make concessions to London. They want to show their own restless voters that there is a price to leaving the EU. The Commission has chosen a hardheaded negotiator, Michel Barnier, to lead the talk with Britain, and he is likely to refuse any concessions that would make Brexit a pain-free option.
Britain also faces the real prospect of a break-up of the United Kingdom itself. Scotland served notice immediately after the Brexit vote that it would now push for a second referendum on independence. And the emotional momentum now seems to be pushing Scotland towards a ‘yes’ vote, despite the economic challenges. If that happens, London will be tied up for years in trying to negotiate the break-up of the UK – as well as trying to distance itself from Europe. Remaining open for business in such circumstances will be very difficult. The political scene at Westminster has already been thrown into turmoil by the Brexit vote. It is hard to see how Britain can now escape considerable political, economic and social damage, however brave a face the government puts on about a bright post-EU future.