Alistair Burt is Chair of the Conservative Group for Europe’s Foreign Affairs Policy Group and a former Minister of State at both the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
Change is happening. Our relationship with Europe is changing, the United States is changing – Joe Biden will be the 46th President – the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has merged with Department for International Development, and the Government is undertaking the ‘Integrated Review’ of security, defence, development and foreign policy.
All of these changes, and others, provide the UK with unique opportunities to make a success of Global Britain. We must now be bold enough – and honest enough – to seize them.
During the summer, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) established a Foreign Affairs Policy Group, which includes experts in diplomacy, business and politics. Our first publication – Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit – will be launched today at a webinar with William Hague, David Lidington, the Chair of CGE, Tom Tugendhat and Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael TD. We will discuss the paper and the future of UK foreign policy.
The Conservative Group for Europe, formed over 50 years ago, has a long history of promoting constructive European engagement within the Conservative Party. But being a pro-European Conservative today inevitably means something different to being a pro-European Conservative in 1970, or even in 2016. Debates move on and times change – as does the CGE.
As the UK forges a new foreign policy, which both reflects and responds to the constantly evolving world, we should not be driven by ideology or old biases. In the realm of foreign affairs, if continuing cooperation and coordination with Europe is in our best interests, we should say so. Adopting a ‘go it alone’ approach, simply to prove a point, would be both wrong and dangerous, and I hear no serious talk of this in foreign affairs. But being outside of the EU will allow for even greater innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking in how we approach foreign policy in the future.
A common theme running throughout the paper is that multilateral political cooperation with the EU, as well as the bilateral relations with its member states in other international fora like the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO where we continue as full members, remains in the UK’s best national and independent interest.
In global affairs, UK and EU interests are often aligned. UK values have influenced Europe and vice versa, so in many ways these are intertwined in facing growing challenges, and our foreign policies will rarely be contradictory but more often mutually reinforcing. To make a success of Global Britain, we can also be ‘European Britain. We can achieve far more on the world stage by working collaboratively, as an equal partner, with our European allies. At the same time, we must seize new opportunities, think innovatively and engage in parts of the world previously overlooked.
Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit is a Conservative contribution to the ongoing discussions about the UK’s role in an ever changing and challenging world, where resources will be stretched, and priorities must inevitably be chosen. The paper covers the EU; the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and East and South Asia. It offers an overview of each region, the UK’s involvement and highlights potential future opportunities and dangers. Crucially, it offers practical and positive suggestions to help ‘Global Britain’ succeed.
It starts with Africa, the world’s fastest growing continent which has all too often been overlooked. The UK should seek more active engagement with Africa by extending its diplomatic outreach and having an Embassy or High Commission in every African state.
These need not be large or grand undertakings; success can be achieved with just a few staff. Likewise, we should consider appointing a dedicated Ambassador to the African Union – as have with the European Union – and further engage with regional groups such as Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). Over the last 30-40 years British business has overlooked African markets – we have lost export market share to Asia, the Americas and even some European countries. Increasing our diplomatic presence and engagement will help foster growth in UK-African trade.
Moving from Africa to the USA, the paper considers the potential foreign policy implications of Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency, his stated aim to rebuild traditional links with Europe and the future role that the UK can play. As President, Biden is committed and experienced in collective international action. He will want a UK working closely with European partners an essential and vital ally, further enhancing the UK’s opportunity for global influence. However, if we were to turn our back on Europe, the UK risks being marginalised and losing its unique and historic role as a bridge between the US and Europe.
Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on the first day of his presidency and with the UK hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) next year, an immediate opportunity exists to strength the UK-US relationship beyond trade and security, as the Prime Minister has noted. A good trade deal is obviously in both our best interests as a good foundation to our new relationship. It may not be without its concessions on both sides, but this might be best for the recovery of our economies post Brexit- some give now on both sides might be politic.
Turning our attention to Europe, the UK cannot be considered as simply ‘another third country’ by the EU, given our security surplus and P5 status. We should seek to establish structured cooperation on Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy matters.
This could be done by developing new structures, or reinventing older ones – like the Western European Union (WEU) – to help formalise foreign policy, defence and security dialogue between the EU and UK. We might also consider including certain non-EU NATO to develop wider European cooperation.
In the Middle East and North Africa, we should welcome the opportunity to use all our diplomatic skills in such a conflicted area: Libya, Yemen and the Middle East Peace Process should be a priority, as should be helping to de-escalate tensions surrounding Iran and the Gulf. The E3 working alliance with Berlin and Paris will remain crucial in the MENA region.
We should continue to work with partners who share our values to promote good governance, human rights, economic reform, ending corruption, and consent in government as the bases of stability. (We should work especially with states promoting religious tolerance, which has a resonance unappreciated in a largely secular UK and Europe. The absence of tolerance, and oppression of minorities, is one of the key recruiters for conflict.)
Defence policy is largely decided in European capitals – and not Brussels – meaning scope exists for future cooperation outside of the EU structures that we are leaving. With constrained resources, we must think carefully about our future defence capabilities. A suggestion in the paper for counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and stabilisation missions, promotes the idea of the UK focusing on high-end capability, including drones. This would allow us to worth collaboratively with Europe, supporting large deployable gendarmerie forces from countries such as France and Italy.
Whatever the future relationship between Britain and its allies – the US, its longstanding Commonwealth friends and, in particular, the EU – the British Government has some very tough choices to make. I hope this paper makes a timely contribution to the on-going discussions about Britain’s future foreign policy, and I wish the Government, and the UK, well as Global Britain.