You are here

UK Prime Minister Theresa May at an EU summit in October 2016. Without the UK the EU is a lesser international force. Courtesy of Alastair Grant/AP/Press Association Images.

Can the UK Retain Global Influence After Brexit? Policies and Structures for a New Era

Simon Fraser
Newsbrief, 30 November 2016
Europe, UK, European Union, Global Strategy and Commitments, Brexit Briefings, International Institutions, UK Defence
The former Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office gives six suggestions for how the UK can continue to exert global influence after Brexit.

I cannot claim to write from a position of neutrality; it’s no secret that most people in the British foreign policy establishment favoured staying in the EU, and I was among them.

But our EU membership will soon be the past. The future after Brexit will be another country and we will need to do things differently there. Leaving the EU will be the biggest shock to our methods of international influencing and the biggest structural change to our place in the world since the Second World War and the end of empire. Whatever reservations we have, we accept that it is going to happen and we share a determination to make both the process and the outcome as successful as we can.

Throughout my career the UK has pursued a global foreign policy. There is a legitimate argument that we should lower this ambition after Brexit, no longer seeking to exert influence across the full waterfront. And there are two broad versions of this approach. First, we could step back and become a more insular and closed country, seeking greater self-sufficiency in economic and security policy, behind tight borders. I hope we do not choose this course. The second option is to narrow our foreign policy focus to immediate national security concerns, and prioritise creating an open and highly competitive regulatory, tax and business environment in the UK, supporting an aggressive pursuit of global trade and investment.

This is what some of those who supported Brexit describe as the ‘Singapore model’. Rather than being a central cog in the international system, the UK would become more of a free market free radical. Personally, I doubt we will choose that. We have deep and wide international involvements. We will remain closely linked to the European economy where 45% of our trade happens. Our history, pride and self-image will prevent us embracing a second-division international role. And by the way, this model would be a hard sell to those who feel most at risk from globalisation. Rather than being like Singapore or anyone else, we will want to be like the UK, sitting at or near the top table. If I am right, how will we manage that?

After Brexit, we will still have many assets and instruments of influencing. We will remain a leading member of the UN, NATO, the G8, the Commonwealth and the international financial institutions. And we are in many other European organisations. All that is not going to vanish, although I do expect that, as we pass through our Brexit transition, our influence within those institutions will be weakened. We will continue to have one of the world’s most effective, if downsized, military capabilities; a high-calibre diplomatic service; a large aid budget; and excellent intelligence and security services. These traditional state foreign policy assets will allow us to exert influence and look after ourselves.

And we will still be able to influence the world in many other ways. Our language is the world’s language (as well as the language of the EU). Our media, the BBC World Service, our universities, law, creative industries, financial services, music, sport, monarchy, will continue to have global reach. Provided we make the right political and economic choices as we go through Brexit, they will remain significant strengths. This will depend above all on continuing economic success. That is why a rational outcome on our future relationship with the EU single market is vital.

The other threat to our soft power lies in our own hearts and minds. This country has a strong tradition of engagement in the world. Our international influence will dwindle if we turn away from engagement towards introspection or, worse, intolerance. There is evidence of potential self-harm in our behaviour towards foreign people, the reported spike in hate crime, the insensitive comments of British politicians and the shocking press coverage of the legal judgement that Parliament should have a voice in activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start our separation negotiations from the EU.

If our leaders are to find the political space to get the best outcomes from Brexit, we need to recognise and address the dissatisfactions within our country that led 52% of people who voted, many of whom probably care little about the EU, to ask to leave. Part of this response must be at the national level, but it links to wider questions about changes taking place in the world and how people experience them.

The world we will be seeking to influence is on the move. Power is shifting from Europe, and to a lesser extent America, to Asia. People are moving in large numbers in search of opportunity. Governments have fewer effective instruments of control. The institutions that have organised international affairs since the Second World War – established by and largely in the interests of Europe and America – are losing traction. People in rich societies like ours are uncertain and are losing confidence. We still don’t know what to expect of Donald Trump’s America, but it will certainly give a new strategic context to Brexit.

In these times of uncertainty, it is going to be structurally more difficult for the UK to exert global influence after Brexit. We will have to work extra hard at it.

So, what can we do about that? I have six suggestions. First we need to make a deliberate, conscious choice about what sort of role we intend to play in international affairs. As the prime minister has said: change is coming. We cannot simply expect to carry on as if nothing happened. Let us try to be clear about the position we want to have in the world and then organise for it both at home, in Europe and further afield.

Second, we must establish the most effective relationship possible with EU members in foreign, security and defence policy as part of the wider Brexit deal. This is in our shared interest. We are neighbours. We face the same challenges from Russia and in the Middle East. The UK brings expertise and credibility to the table: without us the EU is a lesser international force. It is up to us to take the initiative now to develop clear, constructive proposals for how our relationship with the EU in these areas can best be organised. Uncertainty about America’s future policies reinforces this point.

Third, the UK will need to make a bigger investment in relationships with other countries, in Europe and elsewhere. The argument is made by some advocates of Brexit that leaving the EU will free us to build closer relationships with growing and future powers like China and India. There will be economic and political opportunities and we should seize them. That is why in 2010 we switched our diplomatic and commercial focus in their direction. And yes, we will have greater freedom after Brexit to decide how we engage them in commerce and trade. But let us keep this in perspective. These countries represent a small part of our trade. We export more to Belgium than to India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa combined. Although they are growing, and our business with them is growing, the structure of our international trade will not shift rapidly.

On the political side, these countries have different priorities from us. India has another geographical vantage point on the world. China has voted differently from the UK five times this year in the UN Security Council. Hinckley Point, and the earlier stand-off over the Dalai Lama, show how in building relations with China, which I absolutely support, politics can complicate trade and investment. The truth is that our most important international relationships remain those with the US, Germany and France. It should remain a top priority of British policy to avoid major division between the democracies of Europe and America.

Fourth, we need to make the right choices at home. This country is admired for its freedom, tolerance, pragmatism and sense of perspective. If we close our door and our hearts to other peoples, if we step back from the principles of international cooperation and respect for the rule of law, we will lose authority – as well as injuring our own future security. If our Brexit choices damage our economy and cut us off from international interchange, we will hurt our wider power of attraction. Domestic choices have international consequences.

My fifth point is about structures and resources. An active and influential British foreign policy outside the EU will require more investment. We will be less able to leverage billions of EU funding. We will be competing with, rather than steering, the growing European External Action service – even if we find sensible ways of working together. We will need to bolster our presence around the world. We may need to spend more on defence to support our military influence. Our ministers and business leaders will need to travel more to build and keep relationships. So, it is good news that we spend a lot on international policy. But look at how it is divided up. From every £1,000 of UK public spending, £33 or more goes to defence, £12 goes to aid and £2 goes to Foreign Office diplomacy. We spend more on the winter fuel allowance than on the Foreign Office. We spend about half as much each year on aid to Ethiopia alone as we do on our global diplomatic network of embassies.

When I ran the Foreign Office we expanded our international presence while taking a quarter out of our operating budget. I’m all for efficiency, but we will not exert global influence through Potemkin diplomacy. We will need more diplomats, trade policy experts and trade negotiators, and more people in Brussels to influence there. As part of that we should review the international structures of government. The Foreign Office, whose status has been eroded for years, should take a stronger convening role as the coordinator of international policy – just as the Treasury convenes other departments in domestic economic policy. Responsibility for international trade should be folded rapidly into the Foreign Office, on the model favoured by Australia and New Zealand – countries much admired by British ministers.

Finally, Brexit gives us a great opportunity to be creative, agile and diverse in the way we influence. For all the recent reforms, the Foreign Office and our foreign policy community are still too set in their ways of thinking and behaving. They should continue to draw in deep expertise in economics, technology, finance, communication and campaigning. They need to be seen to be relevant to, in touch with, and able to leverage a wide spectrum of society. They should keep working to be flexible, better funded, more expert and giving more opportunity to bright people to progress, leave, return and grow.

I believe the UK will both want, and be able, to exert global influence after Brexit. How much influence we have and how we use it will depend to a large degree on the form Brexit takes and the choices we make. But it is evident that Brexit will diminish the advantages we currently enjoy in the international system, and that we are going to have to work harder and more imaginatively. Where Brexit is concerned, we should be optimistic. But that optimism should be clear-eyed, evidence based and realistic.

Sir Simon Fraser GCMG
Former Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office (2010–15) and now Managing Partner at Flint Global. This contribution is based on his lecture to King’s College London, delivered on 7 November 2016.

Banner image: UK Prime Minister Theresa May at an EU summit in October 2016. Without the UK the EU is a lesser international force. Courtesy of Alastair Grant/AP/Press Association Images.  

Support Rusi Research

Subscribe to our Newsletter