How to think about Britain's post Brexit foreign policy

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
05 March 2018

What impact will Brexit have on the UK’s foreign and security policy? While many Brexiteers argue it will lead to a global Britain, for many others it is clear it will result in a substantial loss of international influence. Yet, while assessing the economic impact of Brexit is relatively straightforward, the same is not true in foreign affairs. A recent report by the UK in a changing Europe attempts to set out a framework to do so. There is some hard data in foreign policy: the defence budget, the foreign aid budget and the FCO budget. But it’s not easy to measure things like influence and soft power.

One key test will be whether the UK will be able to maintain current security arrangements and continue close cooperation with the EU in intelligence sharing and police cooperation. Will it be able to reach agreements with the EU on continued cooperation in agencies such as EUROPOL and in some way maintain access to the Schengen Information System and Prüm database? Will the UK be able to effectively counter cybersecurity threats by sharing data with the EU? Data sharing could be at risk unless the UK continues to be committed to EU cybersecurity standards and compromises on its red lines concerning the role of the European Court of Justice. And if the UK fails to secure close cooperation, what will the impact of this failure on its domestic security be?

Another key test in assessing the impact of Brexit on foreign policy is whether the UK will continue to be able to shape common European responses to challenges such as Russia and Iran. The UK has been one of the most outward-looking members of the EU. Will the EU morph into a different kind of foreign policy actor without the UK, perhaps becoming more insular and focused only on its immediate neighbours? How will the UK be able to exert influence in regions such as the Balkans, where the prospect of EU accession plays such a key role? Much will depend on the formal shape of UK-EU cooperation in foreign policy post-Brexit: this might be a bespoke model as the UK wishes, or an existing, more limited model. But, beyond formal arrangements, the key variable will be whether the UK continues to maintain good bilateral relationships with its European partners post-Brexit. Any fallout from the negotiations may not be easily contained, leading to a loss of trust.

The transatlantic dimension of influence will also be crucial. Will the UK continue to be able to act as bridge between Europe and US, and it often was during its membership of the EU? It will be important to distinguish between influence and cheap talk: proclamations of a renewed special relationship will not be signs of continuing influence if the UK simply aligns itself with US positions without managing to shape them. And if the UK adopts a more mercantilist foreign policy, abandoning its traditional priorities in a hunt for trade deals, this would signal decreasing influence.

Likewise with international organisations: if the UK loses vote after vote in the UN and other organisations, as with the recent resolution on the Chagos islands and the failure to place a British judge on the ICJ, this would be a sign of decreasing influence. The UK’s ability to influence developments in Europe and beyond will depend on whether it manages to remain a valuable partner. This will require more investment in in its armed forces, diplomatic network and in development aid.

The European and transatlantic dimensions of international security are difficult to separate. If the UK has poor relations with the EU, it will be less secure and less able to shape policy towards the neighbourhood. But it will also be in a weaker position towards the US, and more at risk of simply flattening itself on Washington’s positions. And the weaker it is in relation to Europe and the US, the more it will be pushed to adopt a mercantilist foreign policy towards third countries that saps its influence and soft power.

Luigi Scazzieri is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.