Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

UK foreign policy after Brexit

London could lose ground if posturing overcomes substance in its stances towards Russia and the stand-off in Syria, reports Manal Lotfy in London

“The Brexit vote is the single most disorienting event of my career,” said Sir Simon McDonald, permanent under-secretary at the UK Foreign Office, last month in a speech at a seminar organised by the Robert Schuman Institute to discuss British foreign policy after the country leaves the European Union, the so-called Brexit.

The effect of Brexit on UK foreign policy has not been widely discussed, as other issues understandably have taken centre-stage such as the effect of Brexit on the financial services sector, industry, trade, food regulation, fisheries and migration.

One of the reasons for the low-key debate on Brexit and its effects on the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world is the assumption that Britain would remain a global player on the international stage regardless of exiting the EU.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said recently that “as we leave the EU, the UK’s commitment to European security remains undiminished. We will pursue a global foreign policy and continue to work in partnership with our neighbours to promote peace, democracy and security in our continent and across the world.”

For prominent Foreign Office officials like McDonald, Britain will remain at the centre of international politics. “We are permanent members of the UN Security Council and will continue to play an active role there. We also have a vast ambassadorial network of 274 posts around the world, which we will bolster in the future,” he said.

However, these optimistic views ignore the complexity of international politics today and the inevitable effects of Brexit on Britain’s global role and influence. Regardless of the rosy rhetoric, many in the British civil service admit that the assumption that the UK will keep its influence and international status because it has always done so may not represent the realities of foreign policy. 

Two recent foreign policy challenges, the stand-off with Russia over last month’s poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury and the deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Syria after the alleged chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma, represent examples of the challenges ahead.

Although the UK managed to get the support of its allies immediately after the poisoning of the Skripals, blunders by Johnson and his loose use of language when he said there was no doubt that Russia was responsible for the poisonings, in contrast to the more cautious language of the UK Prime Minister Theresa May, cost the country credibility.

Armin Laschet, one of five deputy chairs of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU Party, raised questions over Britain’s drive to persuade its allies to expel Russian diplomats. “If one forces nearly all NATO countries into solidarity, shouldn’t one have evidence? Regardless of what one thinks about Russia, my study of international law taught me a different way to deal with other states,” Laschet said.

British Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott led criticisms of Johnson. “Boris Johnson is apparently going on the international media and saying he is 101 per cent certain it was Putin [behind the poisonings]. I don’t understand where he got that information from,” Abbott said.

With Britain’s refusal to disclose its evidence against Russia, and many questions remaining unanswered, among them why London is still unwilling to allow contacts between the Skripals and their relatives, the international support could falter.

Escalating the tension with Russia before the completion of the investigations was a risk, since economic and political ties with Russia, and the need to work with Moscow to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis, the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, and other security challenges, are at stake.

The current stand-off with Russia might play into the hands of May in the short term, and it gave her the best month in her premiership since snap elections in June last year. However, escalation against Moscow could be costly on many levels, especially with an unpredictable ally like the US led by President Donald Trump.   

The opposition Labour Party is not giving the government a blank cheque either, and it has been critical of the government’s approach. It does not help that May and her government have not proved beyond reasonable doubt that Russia was behind the poisoning attempt.

The situation in Syria and UK options are not less problematic than the stand-off with Russia.

May and Trump have not yet decided on the course of action to take or the form of British participation, if any. One British official told Al-Ahram Weekly that “a military option is possible, and it could be sooner than later,” however.   

British participation in any military action in Syria would require parliamentary approval, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn made his position clear when he called for an investigation into the alleged chemical weapons attacks and a political and not a military solution.

In the event of a showdown at Westminster, splits could emerge among MPs in both parties. Although May could take part in military action against the Syrian regime without parliamentary approval to demonstrate that Britain is still America’s most-trusted ally, the military option in Syria could make foreign policy decisions harder after Brexit.

The US tendency to resort to military action without careful consideration of the consequences is a dangerous path most EU countries are not willing to take, especially after experiences in Iraq and Libya.

This leaves the UK with limited options. To rush into a military response on Syria with the US could damage the efforts of UK officials working to smooth cooperation with allies in Europe, especially in the build-up to Brexit.  

As the Brexit deadline looms, Britain will find the task of determining its foreign policy priorities difficult. McDonald thinks the UK should continue to put Europe first and look to reinforce its counter-terrorism network, as well as expand its network of ambassadorial posts around the world. 

It should seek to strengthen relations with Russia, the Middle East and China, he said. However, “shoulds” and “will dos” do not form a foreign policy, and that is the real challenge for the UK, he added.

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