What will life outside the European Union mean for British foreign policy in 2020? Simon McGee, executive director at APCO Worldwide and former Foreign Office press secretary to Boris Johnson, sees early signs that Global Britain will align closer with Europe than many expected
Cast your mind back a couple of months. Britain looked on bemused at the UK’s third general election scrap in five years, people gossiped about Labour leader Jeremy ‘Magic Grandpa’ Corbyn’s strange spectacles that made you forget he had no clear position on Brexit, and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson still bravely promised an undemocratic exit from Brexit. But while all this was going on a small but significant disagreement was taking place privately within No 10 Downing Street.
A European ministerial meeting was convening in Seville towards the end of November 2019 to discuss and agree the European Space Agency’s (ESA) budget for the next five years, oblivious to the election period in Britain. As Diplomatmagazine readers will know, the ESA is not an EU body although a majority of its 22 full members are EU member states and it exercises very close cooperation on space policy with the EU. The UK would shortly join Norwayand Switzerlandin being the only three non-EU members of the ESA and so the British government had a choice: to stay and commit to another five years, including a 15 per cent increase on previous support, or to withdraw and use the funds to build an independent British space agenda. A vigorous debate ensued among Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ministers and advisers.
Proponents of ESA withdrawal argued that post-Brexit Britain should no longer be subsidising European space efforts and stressed that the UK could still cooperate on space through ad hoc bilateral and multilateral agreements with the US, Russia, India, China, Japan and indeed the ESA. The fact that the British government would be making a substantial spending commitment in the middle of a general election, which is usually avoided unless necessary and beyond the control of the government, also led some to call for delaying the decision. Others argued that continued ESA membership was critical to the UK space industry retaining existing and winning new collaborative space ventures. All the arguments arrived in the Prime Minister’s ministerial box and Johnson chose to give £1.8 billion to the ESA.
This little-noticed decision tells us much about where Johnson likely sees the future UK-EU relationship; with Brexit delivered, it suggests he plans to be very pragmatic about the strong “umbilical” (as he likes to describe it) links between businesses and research institutions on both sides of the English Channel. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson promised at ambassadorial receptions in Lancaster House and in press conferences across Europe that post-Brexit Britain would act as a “flying buttress” to the EU; an external, yet supportive, structure to the walls of the EU “cathedral.” While the term was once mistranslated in simultaneous interpretation as “flying bucket” the point was usually made successfully if not always convincingly. But when pressed on this occasion to decide if he wanted to tear up current agreements and usher in a fresh beginning for Britain in space, Johnson opted for the status quo and the flying buttress.
Does this decision translate into close alignment across all areas beyond the Brexit withdrawal period? Perhaps not. UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid warned last month (January) that businesses should not expect regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit. It led to a howl of protest from businesses and retailers, for which alignment is critical for cross-Channel just-in-time delivery models and seamless supply chains. And yet when it comes to British foreign policy, recent weeks suggest that alignment with European powers rather than the United States is very much on the cards for 2020.
When Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general and Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US targeted air strike on 3 January 2020, unfolding events and statements showed that the UK had been as surprised by the news of the assassination, and ignorant of its approval, as E3 colleagues Franceand Germany. When it came to reacting, nearly-Brexit Britain did not choose to do so unilaterally, or to automatically back potential-free-trade-partner the US. London deliberated with Paris and Berlin as the E3 – like the ESA another European concept proven to work well aside from the EU – and issued a measured joint statement underlining the need for calm and de-escalation. Equally, Germany and France chose to coordinate with the UK rather than produce a firm EU response with the European Commission, despite Brexit and the accompanying rampant expectations of much closer alignment with President Donald Trump’s US. But no one should be particularly surprised given the yawning foreign policy gap between Britain and America which, if anything, is only widening.
It is true that the UK wants to negotiate a free trade deal with the US this year if possible and that the clock is ticking on a breakthrough due to the US government shutting down ahead of the November 2020 US presidential, congressional and senatorial elections. And there is no doubting that when Johnson flies to the US in the coming weeks for a post-Brexit tour of Washington DC, Trump will hail Johnson as a fellow big beast and centre-right disruptor. Yet Britain’s next Ambassador to the US – who I cannot imagine will be anyone other than Dame Karen Pierce, currently UK permanent representative to the UN – will have her work cut out when she lands on Massachusetts Avenue to calibrate and steer a fresh phase in our new transatlantic relationship.
British foreign policy prioritises above all the continuation of the post-war international rules-based system and a multilateral approach to problem solving that Trump appears to despise, despite the in-built advantages it provides the 1945 victors. Unilaterally trashing the IranJCPOA, launching missiles or withdrawing US troops without consulting or informing allies in advance, and dismantling any hopes of a Two State solution to the Israel-Palestine question, demonstrate starkly the divide between the US and European approaches in the Middle East alone.
Meanwhile security sharing through the Five Eyes network, usually the most solid element of the transatlantic partnership alongside military cooperation, is at risk over whether Huawei should participate in the UK’s 5G network. The UK is minded to grant Huawei licence to deliver some of the apparently peripheral infrastructure for the new network such as antennae and masts with British security services claiming they can mitigate inevitable risks arising from the ease with which the Chinese state can utilise Chinese commercial entities as proxies. But the US is less optimistic of this British confidence and is applying exceptional pressure for the UK to deny Huawei a role. Regardless of the potential balance of risks, what is certain is that the ensuing security row is yet another real point of contention, although I cannot help but feel that some of the UK resistance is a Johnsonian refusal to be pushed around by Trump.
Yet nowhere this year is this gap likely to be defined more clearly, as far as the UK is concerned, than the COP26 in Glasgow in November, Britain’s first major international event post-Brexit which UK civil servants say will be the largest political meeting the UK has ever hosted. Particularly poignant will be the timing of the US ending the process of withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change: the US will formally exit the 188-country agreement on 4 November 2020, just five days before the Glasgow conference begins. Assuming Trump wins re-election on 3 November, it will be hard to see him as anything other than a pariah when Johnson and other European and world leaders sit down to discuss global progress. At least Trump’s absence should ensure fewer protesters and a lighter policing bill for Scotland.
So 2020 begins not with the promise of US chlorinated chicken filling British supermarket shelves by Christmas or a renewed Anglo-American plan to reshape the world. It starts with gentle reminders that, at least in foreign policy terms and fundamental values, a European outlook is far more than just membership of the European Union.