By Iran Review
By Ali Esmaeili Ardakani*
Early elections held in Britain by the leading Conservative Party, which were aimed at speeding up and energizing the process of the country’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit, ended in a fragile victory for this party, which made it seek a coalition government. Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet have obtained parliament’s vote of confidence, the question is what changes can be expected in foreign policy orientation of this European nuclear power? It seems that in view of effective domestic variables, which caused Britain to leave the European Union, this country will try not only to expand bilateral relations, especially with the United States and other European countries, but also revive its old spheres of influence in order to increase its international clout and have access to new markets in various parts of the world.
Some critics and members of May’s government have been concerned and believe that she has no idea and outlook for the country’s international relations and foreign policy following Brexit. This group believes that her policies toward the European Union and the United States are much weaker than her Middle Eastern policy. This weakness has made analysts reach the conclusion that Britain is losing its international influence, because the country’s foreign policy is now limited to Brexit. On the other hand, however, there are analysts who believe that May’s transparency in expressing what they call the will of the British nation, has clarified the future of the European Union and its leaders, and has made analysis of Britain’s policies easier for analysts.
Britain’s foreign policy priority after Brexit
What direction would Britain possibly take in its foreign policy after its divorce from the European Union and at a time that it would have no need to further observe imposed and structural boundaries set by European Union’s foreign, defense and security policies? Britain’s exit from the European Union will give it wide latitude to make major changes to its foreign policy. Therefore, it is possible for Theresa May to want to pursue her ideal foreign policy after stabilizing the process of her country’s exit from the European Union.
Major factors, which could have prompted the British people to vote for leaving the European Union, include the issue of immigration, economic crisis, terrorism, cost of collective activities within the European Union’s framework, and an effort to reduce identity-based ties with the union. The aforesaid factors can be linked to the amplified nationalistic views across Europe and lead to the conclusion that this attitude is the main variable affecting Britain’s foreign policy. When it comes to foreign policy, this attitude calls for reduction of the country’s international responsibility and, instead, wants foreign policy to be used as a ground for following up on Britain’s economic and trade interests. Britain’s foreign policy must pave the way for the country’s economy and give precedence to this issue over any form of international role aimed to increase international clout and promote liberal values of the European Union, especially in those cases like Iraq and Afghanistan, which can entail high costs. Selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which is known as a country violating human rights, and making it a priority for domestic and foreign policies of Britain can be a sign that Britain is adopting its own desirable foreign policy for the Brexit period, because it gives lower priority to promoting the European Unions’ values in comparison with Britain’s domestic economy.
Contrary to this argument, some British elites believe that after getting rid of limitations imposed on it by the European Union’s large-scale policies, the country will assume more international responsibility. They argue that realization of this goal would depend on how Britain would manage Brexit talks in the coming five years. Setting five years as a possible time frame for talks on Brexit must be considered as part of changes in direction of Britain’s global strategy.
Strategic partners after Brexit
Which country or countries will be Britain’s main foreign policy partners following Brexit? Focusing on macroeconomic and other domestic policies to lay the foundation of a dynamic economy free from collective crises plaguing the European Union, on the one hand, and reviving old spheres of influence and markets, on the other hand, can form the guiding light of Britain’s foreign policy when it comes to selecting new strategic partners. On the other hand, since the process of Brexit talks will most possibly be peaceful, Britain can relatively continue to accompany the union with regard to general outlines of its defense and security policies, including London’s obligations toward NATO. At the same time, this cooperation will form the basis of new bilateral relations between Britain and the European Union.
Another part of the reality, however, is that Britain’s position and the need to take a foreign policy direction commensurate to the public demand will make alignment with the United States a highly probable option, which is the closest to the reality as well. Signs of this alignment can be seen in May’s speech in Philadelphia in January and in her meeting with US President Donald Trump. In that speech, May said Britain would take on an “even more internationalist role, where we meet our responsibilities to our friends and allies, champion the international cooperation and partnerships that project our values around the world, and continue to act as one of the strongest and most forceful advocates for business, free markets and free trade anywhere around the globe.” It follows that the risk resulting from international terrorism threats in addition to continued growth of such non-Western powers as China and India can establish possible common grounds for cooperation between these two countries in playing a joint international role. The emphasis put by May on growth of China and India can somehow verify this proposition that Theresa May considers economy as a priority and aims to make Britain play a more effective role in order to claim a more serious part in international economic equations.
On the other hand, Britain will possibly face new limitations for taking advantage of the common European market and, therefore, must look for new markets. This country will probably try to prioritize contacts with various countries in order to open up their markets to the British economy and provide necessary grounds for growth of Britain’s domestic economy. In doing this, Eastern Europe, Russia, the Persian Gulf countries, China and the Balkans will be possible priorities for Britain. The need to take this step will face London with three scenarios to choose from: 1. moving toward bilateral cooperation with member states of the European Union and even non-member countries, especially those in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia; 2. revising past strategies and red lines imposed on Britain by the European Union, including through redefining common economic grounds with China and other emerging economies; and 3. creating new spheres of political and economic influence or reviving past spheres of influence, including Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
In conclusion, any ambiguity or oversight in following a proactive foreign policy by May can have many consequences for Britain’s foreign and defense policies, including expulsion from the process of making security and collective policies of the European Union. On the other hand, Britain’s exit from the union will face the European Union’s defense, foreign and security policies with more limitations and a country like Germany will have to pursue its plan for building a European army on the basis of the union’s common defense and security policy with more speed. This issue can phase out Britain from the process of making important European decisions, help further growth of an economic and political rival like Germany, and downgrade Britain’s economic relations while reducing its share of the common European market. It also appears that Britain will try to manage the Brexit process in a way that while maintaining its defense and security priorities and share of the common European market, reduce its political, identity-based, value-based and normative commitments at international level to a minimum. Of course, in view of the current position taken by the axis of Germany and France on the issue of Brexit, it seems that Britain will have a very hard row to hoe.
* Ali Esmaeili Ardakani
Expert on European Issues
 “Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit: Some early thoughts,” John Bew & Gabriel Elefteriu, Britain in the World Project, July 2016; available at: https://www.policyexchange.org.uk/…/British-foreign-policy-after-Brexit