A foreign policy for Brexit?

Brexit both contains and is creating abounding unknowns and uncertainties. These will have an impact on many aspects of international relations and security policy in Europe. How will it be possible to navigate them?

Unwelcome advice and its consequences

Some of the uncertainties are in the limelight because of the resignation of Britain’s  Permanent Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers. From his email to his staff announcing and explaining the resignation, we glean that,

  1. ‘Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.’
  2. The make-up of the UK’s negotiating team has not yet been decided.
  3. Nor has the mechanism for harmonising the London and Brussels parts of the negotiating process.
  4. The government does not like inconvenient advice.

Rogers’ replacement is doubtless competent and clever. UK Foreign Office staff have a deserved reputation for being so. But Rogers was said to know the EU better than any other senior civil servant.  The former head of the Treasury, Lord McPherson, described Rogers’ departure as part of the government’s ‘wilful and total destruction of EU expertise.’

It looks a pretty muddled state of affairs, six months on from Theresa May becoming Prime Minister, less than three months before the negotiations on British withdrawal and a new trading relationship are set to start.

Whither Britain?

Worse, with the ship barely ready and the crew not on board, there also seems little idea about where to go. The EU referendum answered one big question but opened the way for more. It’s fine to run the flag up the mast; now, where are we off to?


The UK has to work out a new relationship with the world’s largest economic and political bloc, with which it currently conducts half its international trade. It has close military ties with most EU states in NATO. But who knows what sort of EU it will be by the end of 2017? Elections in March (the Netherlands), April-May (France) and September (probably) (Germany) could each mark a milestone on the road to somewhere or other.

The global setting is the epitome of uncertainty. The Middle East remains an arena of interlinked conflicts and insecurity; British special forces are in action in Syria alongside French and US forces. The EU (temporarily including Britain) has persistent tensions and disputes with Russia but President Trump’s inauguration is looming and his attitude seems different. The US-China relationship, on which such economic stability as there has been for the last two decades has depended, may well be up-ended in short order once Trump is in the White House.

Brexit negotiations will cover many issues – finance, trade, market access, investment, citizenship and residency rights, police cooperation, counter terrorism and more. The outcome will do a lot to define the UK’s social and economic trajectory in the coming decade. A foreign policy framework is an unavoidable part of the picture. It is part of shaping the goals as well as the tactics of negotiation. It will define some important content of an agreement, such as over cooperation in advanced military technologies. And it will be what makes sense (or not) of the link between a UK-EU agreement and how British interests are defined, supported and advanced in relations with China, India, the US, Russia and other powers.

So what is the foreign policy for Brexit?

The broad options

Since the end of World War II, UK foreign policy has charted a course with three different guiding stars, each one a pole of attraction for different and fluctuating sections of political and public opinion and the policy world:

  1. Close alliance with the US;
  2. An independent world role;
  3. Focus on the EU.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive foreign policy options. Listen closely to Churchill or Thatcher and you hear a harmony of one and two – the US alliance and the world role. Listen to Heath or Major and you hear one and three – the US and the EU. Listen to Blair and it’s all three at once. The history of 70 years of British foreign policy can essentially be told as a history of strife and compromise between these three options and their adherents.

Theresa May is to make a major Brexit speech some time in January. Reportedly, it will set out a vision. If it includes foreign policy writ large, what could it envision? Not the focus on the EU, obviously.

The independent world role option is likely to look quite outmoded to many observers, redolent of Empire as it is. But that is also what makes it popular in middle England (not so much in Scotland, Wales or Ireland, I would guess). This well known clip of anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage retrospectively disowning the claim that leaving the EU will save the UK £350 million a week has a nice little moment at the end, when he says Britain leaving the EU can get closer with the Commonwealth.

Exploring that option seriously would take one straight to India, the biggest Commonwealth economy. But India is probably not much interested in a trade deal with Britain unless the latter eases restrictions on immigration – not exactly what the Brexiteers have in mind. However, the Commonwealth Farage, Trade Secretary Liam Fox and others probably mean in their hearts is not the whole thing but Canada, Australia and New Zealand – CANZUK. Whatever else one thinks about it, this group hardly carries the economic and political weight Britain has been used to being part of through the EU. There is also a non-Imperial version of an independent world role for Britain – full non-alignment. This has been pretty much invisible since the end of the Cold War, having had some marginal support in the Labour Party in the 1980s.


Of course, as the cover of this pamphlet tells us, as Brexit tells us, as Trump tells us – what is marginal today may be centre stage tomorrow. Nonetheless, British withdrawal from NATO isn’t on any significant political agenda right now and a neo-Imperial revival isn’t on history’s agenda either. Since the latter sounds reassuring in the Brexit heartlands, however, I would not be surprised to see a pragmatic version of it surface in a Prime Ministerial speech.

The obvious option

At the start of December, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson gave his first major foreign policy speech (first of a series, he said). It ranged from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to elephants but gave only a few clues about the UK’s foreign policy priorities. Its vagueness and lack of depth did not shock those who take seriously rumours and reports of Johnson’s dilettantish approach to high office. Two big priorities emerged: one was ‘sticking up for a liberal international order’ with strong institutions; the other was close alliance with the US. It makes sense: in the logic of Britain since 1945, if Europe is ruled out, the US is of necessity ruled in.

This will be comfortable – almost the default selection – for many politicians, civil servants and commentators. The ‘special relationship’ with the US was the bedrock of UK security and foreign policy from Churchill to Blair.

But the times, as somebody said, are a-changing. Since 1945, US policy has combined national interest with upholding the liberal international order and its institutions. There has also always been an isolationist, America-first strand of US opinion. Its importance has waxed and waned. Successive Presidents have intermittently used it to browbeat European and other allies into acquiescence with various policies. It has never dominated policy making.

Now, of course, it might. It is a fiendish irony of a foreign policy for Brexit that its logic entails moving away from the EU that until recently desperately wanted Britain, towards the US that, notwithstanding kind words for Brexit itself, may soon be less concerned about the British and European part of the world than ever before. If the Trump administration takes a very different approach towards Russia than the Obama administration and the EU including Britain have done since the Russian move into Crimea in 2014, what then? Does the British government, seeking to cosy up with the US, break ranks with the rest of its NATO allies? Will dependence on the US trump all else?

Or another option

An alternative probably lies only in a further and deeper break with the UK’s foreign policy traditions. Could there be a foreign policy that is neither EU-focused, nor US-compliant, nor Empire-nostalgic (nor, indeed, non-aligned dreaming)?

Such a policy would be so far removed from the preferences and worldview of almost all politicians, civil servants and commentators that it hardly seems worth trying to work out what it would look like. Which international institutions would it focus on and how?  What would it mean to be an ally of the US with an independent mindset? What other allies could Britain have for what components of policy? Might it be possible to be part of some EU policy but not all? What new relationships might it seek? Which old relationships would be less important and which ones might be re-energised?

It would be as big a break with the orthodoxy as the Brexit vote was. Which means, I guess, that it is worth some thought. Greater independence was, after all, a theme of the referendum campaign. Working out different versions of that goal in the domain of foreign policy would contribute to a necessary part of the Brexit debate in these times and who knows to what it might contribute some years hence? Overall, the effort does not seem inappropriate.


One thought on “A foreign policy for Brexit?

  1. “What other allies…for what components of policy?” Perhaps Scandiwegians on rights, conflict resolution, equality. Germany on humanitarian assistance and immigration support. India on trade, industrial and management services. China on infrastructure development. Selected UN, if adequately reformed and structured on humanitarian assistance, inclusion, gender and poverty reduction…some emerging regional bodies, with adequate reform, such as OAU. ECOWAS, similarly For Asia and Latin America and Caribbean etc. But yes most probably too far from world view, and experience, of most politicians..

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