By Richard G. Whitman*
Over the four decades of its membership the UK has been a reluctant, and sometimes awkward, partner for its fellow member states on any moves to deepen the process of European integration. There is no precedent for a country choosing to exit the European Union. This means that the consequences for the UK’s foreign and security policy of a departure from the EU are uncertain and the full costs cannot be calculated on the basis of any available evidence.
What might the future hold for the UK’s place in the world after the vote on 23rd June? Any prospect of an EU exit would raise a broader set of questions for the UK on the orientation and objectives of its national foreign and security policy. EU membership has been a key component of the UK’s diplomacy and foreign policy since 1973. Alteration to that status would require an extensive recalibration of the UK’s relationship with its European neighbours and international partners.
Since joining in 1973 the EU’s mechanisms for foreign policy have provided the UK with the best of both worlds – allowing the UK freedom of action to act independently where it chooses and to act collaboratively and leverage common resources where it prefers. This allows the UK to have a greater influence in world affairs than it could do so if acting purely on its own. The EU mechanisms are also particularly attractive for a large Member State like the UK with historical engagements and widespread commercial interests around the world. A large Member State like the UK has a greater ability to influence EU policy on a wide range of issues as it has a more extensive and ambitious foreign and security than the majority of the EU’s smaller and medium sized Member States.
Brexit campaigners argue that leaving the EU liberates the UK economy from the burden of excessive regulation, and that the UK’s diplomatic and political bandwidth is also freed from the weight of EU institutions, and its decision making processes. In this scenario, it is argued, the UK could then fully use diplomatic and military capabilities alongside its soft power, its position as an unrivalled international financial centre and its memberships of the ‘Anglosphere’ and the Commonwealth, to seek new international influence, especially with rising powers.
The converse view of the ‘Bremain’ campaigners is that there is a less optimistic future outside the EU. This is one where the UK’s economy is placed in jeopardy through the uncertainty of its future relationship to its largest market. Also that the UK’s place in the world is diminished and the British government is forced to fight the perception that Britain’s international role and influence is shrinking.
The costs of a Brexit would not just fall on the UK. The UK is a key participant in the EU’s foreign and security policy. Its departure from the EU would add to the EU’s current collection of crises and also diminish the EU’s collective capacity for foreign policy. As a country with a significant track record in international engagement, and a range of diplomatic, military, development and other foreign policy resources, the UK’s support, or opposition, to the development of a collective system of EU foreign and security policy making, and the pursuit of foreign policy initiatives, has a high degree of importance.
In a vote to exit the EU the UK’s foreign and security policy could be preoccupied for the best part of a decade in reorganising its existing foreign relations whilst new challenges within international relations might be a better focus of attention. Furthermore, the UK would still need to be heavily occupied with influencing the EU’s policy agenda from outside an organisation which represents the world’s largest trading bloc, the most significant provider of overseas development aid, a major player in international environmental diplomacy, and a key actor in Europe’s diplomacy and security. The UK may choose Brexit but its security will still remain intertwined with the successes and failures of the EU.
A Brexit vote might also create the conditions for breakup of the United Kingdom itself, with pressure for a second referendum on Scottish independence, if the EU referendum saw Scotland vote to remain within the EU.
Consequently the UK faces a public vote which would set one of two different EU futures. A vote to remain would not eliminate the ambivalence which the British public feels towards European integration. However it would be significant in endorsing the status quo position of the UK as a member of the EU, but outside key policy areas such as the single currency and Schengen. A vote to leave creates a future for which there is no precedent. It would set the UK’s economy and foreign policy in a different and less certain direction. It is now for the public to decide which future it would like.
*Senior Research Fellow, The UK in a Changing Europe and Visiting Senior Fellow, Chatham House; Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent