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UK Faces Foreign Policy Dilemmas As Brexit Reality Hits – OpEd


By Alistair Burt*


Whether you loved or loathed it, millions of UK citizens are — to borrow a phrase from Frank Sinatra — about to face the final curtain of our time in the EU. After years, decades even, of argument, the intensity of the referendum campaign and the madness of the parliamentary process that followed, the UK will finally leave the EU on Friday. We will begin to find out the answers to a hundred different questions, all beginning with, “When we leave the EU, what will happen about…?”

High upon this agenda is the question about the UK’s foreign policy: To what extent will it be different after we leave? It reminds us of the famous 1962 challenge — before we joined the European Community — of US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who said: “Great Britain has lost an empire, but not yet found a role.” Many, like me, believed that in the EU we had found that role, bringing our diplomatic reach, together with our existing positions in the UN, NATO and the Commonwealth, to play a leading role in world affairs while anchored securely with our closest neighbors. But that is not to be, so Acheson’s challenge echoes again.

The UK’s friends and critics alike are watching anxiously. Dire predictions are being made. Will we swing decisively toward the US, terrified of potential trade repercussions if we do not slavishly follow Washington? Or, as the reality of leaving the EU bites, will we stay close to EU foreign policy positions, defying the US, to ensure frictionless trade continues?

I don’t believe either is likely. Look at what is staying the same. We remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council, in NATO and a leader of the Commonwealth. Our friends in the Middle East and North Africa were not much affected directly by our EU membership. Our geography does not change. Europe contains our closest neighbors, and trade inevitably follows such closeness. For security and protection, our cooperation with our neighbors and Washington remains vital. And the broad liberal values system that has kept us in step with the US and the EU for decades is unlikely to be altered radically.

So my first instinct is to query what, if anything, needs to change. We are not going to find a home in some of the wilder fancies suggested, such as in a Commonwealth or Anglosphere foreign policy, as their interests are not as London-centric as some nostalgically imagine. It should be recalled that we already possess our own independent foreign policy. Contrary to the claims of some UK Brexiteers, we have always been a sovereign and independent country within the EU and our foreign policy has not been tied to it. Of course, we have sought common positions where we could, and it has been one of the aims of our foreign policy to seek to do so. As a minister of state, Paris and Berlin were on my speed dial for whenever a crisis was brewing.


But we have not always been on the same page, as chapters of recent Middle East history remind us. Accordingly, the pressure of being between the US and Europe on issues is also not new.

But if the pressures are not new, there is every indication that they will become more acute. It would be naive to think that, in hard trade negotiations involving billions in currency and millions of jobs and potential votes, countries will not use every bit of muscle they have to get the best deal. Slights one way or another will be noted. The UK faces early challenges. Huawei looms large with the US, as does Iran policy, adding to an asymmetric trade negotiation. The EU seems less likely to demand UK compliance with a foreign policy where differences have occurred from time to time, although it might not be in a position to offer much by way of regulatory concession in return for EU-supportive UK positions on the Iran nuclear deal or Jerusalem and the Middle East peace process.

Some challenges will come from those less mentioned, but with enormous markets compared to the UK’s 65 million. India hears contradictory noises from the UK — from Indian or Pakistani diaspora representatives — over Kashmir, for example. It may have visa demands too. While Huawei plays big in the US, it may also be pretty significant in China, which is a growing market for UK foodstuffs.

For Boris Johnson, traps abound, and, after the Champagne is cleared away, the aftermath will require sober consideration. But so far, in the run-up to Brexit, when it might have been equally valid to consider every foreign position potentially commercially hazardous in the light of the referendum result, UK policy has remained largely untouched, robust and as independent as a difficult world allows it to be. It would be good for the world, and for “Global Britain,” if it remains so.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK

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