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British Foreign Policy Goldfish – Free at Last!

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford asks what are the UK’s foreign policies, and poses scenarios for both a Hard and Soft Brexit

The basic problem for diplomats today is that we live in a world where things that are Too Big To Fail are failing in all directions. Banks. States. Political parties. Borders. The European Union. It’s hard to keep up. Does any ‘foreign policy’ other than sheer survival now make much sense for any country?

At the time of writing, it’s a full month and more after the UK’s momentous referendum vote in favour of the UK leaving the European Union. So, what are the UK’s foreign policies now?

One can click on the Foreign Office website to explore current British foreign policy thinking. One scrolls down to the teasing link that says ‘See all our policies.’ Of the 22 policies said to be ‘from (sic) Foreign and Commonwealth Office’ there is only one where the FCO appears to be in the sole lead, namely Iran’s nuclear programme. On everything else, other Whitehall departments are presented as leading the issues, with the FCO helping out.

Among those 22 policies reached via the FCO website, only one directly touches on European Union issues: European single market. Clicking on that, it says the following:

‘The single market is key to Europe’s place in the global economy … We’re aiming to make the single market more productive, better for small business, and fit for a digital age, so that businesses can operate cross-border in the same way they do at home.’

Is that any of the UK’s business any longer?

Still, in an uncertain world and especially after that Brexit vote, we can be sure that right at the front of British foreign policy is hard-headed thinking about President Putin’s steely ‘policies’. Searching the Policies section of the FCO website for Russia, one finds the following result:

0 policies containing Russia from Foreign & Commonwealth Office.’

Hmm. Will our rambunctious flaxen-haired new Foreign Secretary change that?

Any Diplomat reader interested in drilling deeper into why the UK voted to leave the EU should read the New Statesman analysis entitled ‘The English Revolt’ by Professor Robert Tombs of Cambridge University. Professor Tombs is a mighty expert on French nationalism, so he pronounces on the Brexit vote with aplomb:

“This country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be ‘at the heart of Europe’ … In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.”

Wait. What was that? Decide for ourselves?

This noble thought takes us back to Whitehall. It’s impossible to quantify the sprawling intellectual energy and financial cost that UK civil servants have devoted to EU Working Groups over the past few decades. It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that some people will have done little else for the whole of their professional careers.

Now the giddy days of being paid handy extra allowances to take the Eurostar to Brussels to pore with chers collègues over unreadable and unread Draft Conclusions look to be coming to an end. As goldfish hitherto confined to swimming in useless circles in a tiny glass bowl that are now cast back into the lake, our public servants must learn to swim boldly in different directions; to make sense of a quite new (and perhaps more perilous) way of policy life.

First big question: Will the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish goldfish stay together? Yes.

In the political turmoil immediately following the Brexit vote, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sped to Brussels to advance the cause of Scotland staying within the EU. But she soon found out that it is the UK as a whole that is in the EU (or not). Scotland can be in the EU if the rest of the UK leaves only (a) by becoming a fully independent country paying its own way in the world; (b) by promising to join the eurozone; and (c) by persuading all other EU members (including Spain with its own separatist tendencies) that Scotland be allowed to join. Each of these is hard to see happening. Together? Almost impossible.

Second big question. Is Brexit in fact going to happen merely because the British people have voted for it and the new UK government led by Theresa May has promised to deliver it? Probably. But it’s still far from clear what exactly that will mean, and whether it will be an event or a process.

Some Leave campaigners wanted Hard Brexit: the UK summarily quits the EU and stands alone as an independent trading nation controlling its own borders. Hurrah. Others wanted Soft Brexit: the UK quits the EU but stays closely entwined with the EU Single Market in either European Economic Area mode (see Norway) or European Free Trade Association mode (see Switzerland). Some especially subtle types made the case for Soft Brexit EEA-style now, as a wise, pragmatic step towards Hard Brexit later.

Choosing which of these broad possibilities make the most sense for the UK then sounding out key European partners on their likely response is a hugely delicate task. Prime Minister Theresa May has set up a whole new Department for Exiting the European Union to lead on all this. Their website has no Policies at all, but they do have responsibilities:

  • conducting the negotiations in support of the Prime Minister including supporting bilateral discussions on EU exit with other European countries.
  • leading and coordinating cross-government work to seize the opportunities and ensure a smooth process of exit on the best possible terms.

The Prime Minister also has moved speedily to meet Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and France’s President Hollande to introduce herself and start that process rolling. After summer weeks mulling over options and then presiding over a successful Conservative Party conference to secure her party base, she can start the negotiations rolling in earnest.

Let’s assume that we get a Soft Brexit deal in due course, with the UK heading towards some sort of Norway-like relationship with the EU. How might this change UK foreign policy, if at all?

It will continue to make sense for the UK to work closely with EU ex-partners on all the big European security questions, above all relations with Russia and Ukraine. But will EU member capitals still pay as much attention to London’s views on issues such as EU sanctions against Moscow?

Likewise London can be expected to continue to coordinate closely with EU HQ in Brussels on myriad issues of international trade and other regulation. But with Soft Brexit accomplished, UK goldfish would suddenly find themselves free to take UK positions in world trade talks and many other arcane global-level regulatory fora that have huge operational impact. Getting back the technical skill and ambitious negotiating guile to thrive in this new policy environment will take time.

What does Brexit mean for the UK’s permanent UN Security Council seat? A fleeting problem in July with two UK police officers serving with the UN in Sudan reportedly prompted internal UN anti-British muttering:

“This also raises the question of their merits to hold a permanent seat at the Security Council and mandating others on how to handle peace and security issues when they themselves are quick to abandon their post in challenging situations.”

No, it just doesn’t. The EU’s European External Action Service has had ill-disguised ambitions to take over from both UK and France the lead European responsibility at the UN. Plenty of countries agree with them. Isn’t the composition of the UN Security Council anachronistic to the point of being ridiculous? Far too much dull old condescending Europe, and not enough exciting young India or Africa or Middle East?

Maybe. But there’s no prospect of agreement on how a reformed Security Council might look and what its powers might be. The UK’s Brexit referendum result reduces to nil the prospects of the UK (and France) lugubriously ceding this strategic historic advantage for the foreseeable future.


Let’s leave almost the last word with Professor Tombs:

“Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.”

The Leave victory in the UK’s referendum really was a Monty Pythonesque Now for Something Completely Different. Different for us Brits, and different for our erstwhile EU partners. How different? We won’t know until we start exploring these new uncharted waters.


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