edited by Paulina Lucio Maymon

On June 23, 2016, a majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union. The political earthquake that followed Brexit is now beginning to stabilize, and the British population is beginning to demand answers about how future negotiations with the European Union (EU) will be carried out. The truth, as in all negotiations, is that there is no answer—outcomes will depend not only on the British government but also, clearly, on the position the EU takes.

However, there is something the United Kingdom (UK) can decide on their own. Having decided to leave the European Union, the UK has now to decide how they are going to conduct their foreign relations. What role is the former great British empire willing to play in the 21st century? What are the foreign policy interests for the United Kingdom today?

Brexiters have stated that foreign policy will try to pursue three parallel routes: 1) face towards the Commonwealth again, as a British area of influence; 2) achieve more free trade with Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth nations; and 3) interrelated with the former one, use funds that that will not be given as foreign aid to the EU to benefit British interests.

On December 2, 2016, the Foreign Minister Boris Johnson delivered his “Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit” speech at Chatham House; this was the first time he had spoken about the future of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. He stated that people of the world expect the leadership of Great Britain, and that the UK is politically, economically, and morally required to be more engaged with the world than ever before. Based on Johnson’s statements, different analysts have forecasted several options. The pessimistic view argues that Brexit is a big error that will severely diminish the UK’s power in the international arena, both economic and politically. A more optimistic view envisions the building of a new foreign policy for the UK.

After the Second World War, three events have stood as landmarks characterizing the UK’s recent position in the international arena: the end of the Second World War in 1945, the birth of the modern Commonwealth in 1949, and the modern UK-EU history, with Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973. Today, the powerful island nation is in a global scenario in which its former position as a superpower has changed. In what follows, I will consider Britain’s three parallel foreign policy priorities.

UK’s Two “Special Relationships”: The Commonwealth and the United States

There are moments in the life of nations in which, facing doubt, they return to their origins. In such moments, the United States often looks to their “founding fathers”; the UK has, in perhaps an analogous way, Sir Winston Churchill. In his “The Sinews of Peace” speech, Winston Churchill marked the two special relationships of the UK: those with the Commonwealth and the United States (US). On January 26, 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May revisited this expression at her speech in the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, and although she also stated a position on other foreign policy issues, the “special relationship” was immediately seized upon the media for the significance it has. Not only she was the first world leader to meet President Trump, but she also used this phrase to recall the importance of the relationship between both countries, in a moment when both leaders are trying to redefine the presence of their countries in the world.

The “special relationship” with the US needs yet to prove to be beneficial for both countries in this contemporary moment, as the relationship of the past does not immediately assures a relationship in the present. May has been criticized for her close relationship with President Trump. Moments after their encounter on January 27, Trump signed his controversial executive order that bans travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and May’s delayed and weak response against it provoked anger, even inside her own party.

Britain’s other special relationship, the Commonwealth, had also appeared as a reasonable path to follow after Brexit. In the same Philadelphia speech, May recognized the “ties of family, kinship and history” to countries of the Commonwealth, stating that the UK has always “looked beyond Europe to the wider world.” Returning to the group Britain founded looks like an easy solution: according to Boris Johnson, “some of those dynamic commonwealth economies are already queuing up to do free trade deals” (Johnson, 2016). However, although they have a history with the Commonwealth countries, these countries are not just more economically strong in 2017 than they were in 1949 but they are also more politically strong. The clearest example is India, whose government has channeled the diplomatic efforts to act as an equal with the United Kingdom in the United Nations Security Council, lobbying for a permanent seat in it, as South Africa has done. However, as Karen Smith states, it is doubtful that the Commonwealth countries will allow the UK to see them as an area of influence in the 21st century (Smith, 2016). They are now independent nations that do not need another country patronizing them, and most surely will not allow the former empire to try to impose any policy priorities to them.

Free Trade

In his December speech, Johnson reiterated that “It is our historic post-Brexit function, as the Prime Minister has said, to be the leading agitators for free trade” (Johnson, 2016); this line may be the only policy path Brexiters have clear. Free trade is a priority for the UK—it is something they have done well in the past, and something they will try to do it again. Since the mercantilism times, for the British the border between free trade and foreign aid has and now continues to be blurry: as Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, has stated, Britain has to make sure that aid works for Britain’s national interests. Foreign aid will be used to promote a free trade that will benefit the UK, and not to “promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries” (the main objective of the official development assistance). This stance endangers the potential aid that could be used for humanitarian crisis, for example.

It is important to understand that in order for free trade to work, economies need to complement each other. The majority of Commonwealth nations are developing countries, and the production of commodities is their strength, unlike the UK, which strength is the production of services. When exiting the European Union, it will become a necessity for Great Britain to trade with the Commonwealth. However, the UK will not be able to impose a more dominant policy, as three decades ago the Washington Consensus did (Curtis, 2016)

To take India as an example again, its attractive big economy would likely demand more from a trade agreement than the UK is willing to give right now. India will be interested in the free trade of services, which is, of course, what the UK is not willing to do (Hix, 2016). A free trade of services will mean a free movement agreement, and not control of borders—what the UK voted for on the Brexit referendum. The UK will continue to promote free trade in its classic conception—for commodities only.

Foreign Aid

Brexiters argue that there are several economic benefits in leaving the EU. Since they will not have to spend money on contributions to the EU, the UK will be able to focus that expenditure on official development assistance (ODA) in less developed countries, increasing their areas of influence and soft power. The UK has traditionally been proud of being the only G7 country to reach the UN goal of giving 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to ODA (Lunn, Booth, 2016). These international contributions have helped the UK maintain their global role as a supportive country. Through multilateral and bilateral aid, a morally good appealing image of the UK is created, which further benefits their objective of being “richer, safer and morally better“.

Today, the World Bank and the EU are the main recipients of the UK’s multilateral ODA, with the EU receiving 24 percent of UK multilateral ODA in 2014 (National Audit Office, 2015). The separation from the EU will allow the UK not only to use this money for more foreign aid, but also to be individually recognized as a country for the aid they give -as now their contributions are labeled as “EU” aid. Therefore, the UK will be able to build strong relationships with more countries as potential recipients of foreign aid. However, if Brexit turns out to be an economic disaster, because the ODA relates to the GDP, then, inevitably, Britain’s aid contributions will be reduced (Smith, 2016).

Britain is Bigger than Brexit

The UK has a special place in international politics. Although the British empire is now a part of history, the UK remains a global leader in a 21st century where new powers are emerging, and where multilateral diplomacy has fomented more democratic international participation. The UK continues to be economically and politically a global benchmark. They have one out of five permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council. In the fight against Daesh, they are the second biggest contributor to the air campaign, after the US. They are a founding member of NATO, contributing with 2 per cent of their GDP on defense and 20 per cent of their defense budget on new equipment. They are Europe’s top financial center. They inspire and promote creative industries: architecture, arts and culture, crafts, design, fashion, games, music, publishing, tech, TV and film (Hix, 2016). They are home of the global lingua franca, with the cultural institutions that entails: a broadcasting corporation (BBC) that reaches 348 million of people worldwide weekly, a network leaded by the British Council that promotes English language, culture and education, and international students attending their top universities each year.

As in the case of every other moment of political turmoil, we must remember that political parties come and go, while career diplomats remain. The continuity of the civil service allows must of the public policies of a nation to continue working, with only few of them changing according to the new political party in power. As a member of the British Foreign Office told me, “Brexit is just a trade agreement,” stating that diplomatic efforts in different arenas will continue to be made even after the UK resolves to leave the EU by activating what is stipulated in the Article 50 of Lisbon’s treaty—EU constitutional basis—and even after, as feared by some and acclaimed by others, the negotiations for the way out of the EU begin.

Brexit’s real consequences, and the revised role the UK will play in the international arena, will only become clear over time. The rise of nationalism in Europe and the US, provoked in part by structural problems such as the refugee crisis and growing national inequalities, is urging governments to propose new solutions to their populations. Worldwide, politics is facing a boiling point of people tired of the status quo. Even if the UK had already decided how they wanted to reconsider their international role, other actors will define their status as well. For example, Trump’s government, Putin’s agenda, the future of the EU, Daesh, and Syria’s fate, among others, will continue shaping the international playground.

British people have to decide if they want to be an observer or a player in an international political scene which promises to be anything but boring in the next few years. May invited Trump to together be players. Let’s hope she does not regret it. With Brexit still to be assessed, the UK has now little political capital to endure another fragile relationship.

Claudia Derbez Fernández

Written by Claudia Derbez Fernández

Claudia Derbez Fernández is a Chevening Scholar pursuing a MSc in Inequalities and Social Sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE). Before attending the LSE, Claudia served for two years as Head of the Development Challenges Office in the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She previously...
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