Brexit and Britain’s standing in the world

In the fifth of a series of EU referendum briefings, Simon Wilson looks at the potential effect of leaving on Britain’s foreign muscle.


United front: David Cameron with EU President Martin Schulz

The EU referendum is the issue of the year. But what are the facts? In the fifth of a series of briefings, Simon Wilson looks at the potential effecton Britain's foreign muscle.

What are the arguments?

Even by the standards of the current Brexit debate in which "Remainers" accuse "Leavers" of wanting to take a "leap into the abyss", and Leavers accuse Remainers of deploying "Project Fear" in place of rational argument the arguments over how a British exit from the European Union would affect Britain's "influence" in the world are hard to pin down. The idea of "influence" is more nebulous, and less quantifiable, than hard statistics on trade or migration flows.

In a nutshell, though, Brexiters assert that leaving the EU will liberate the UK to reassert its historic identity as a truly global power. Remainers argue that the road to influence in a more interdependent world lies through strategic leadership within the European bloc embracing the idea that EU membership is a diplomatic force-multiplier from which Britain can leverage its considerable strengths to maximum effect.

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Yes, we might be outvoted more often than we used to be in the enlarged EU, but over the decades the UK has achieved all of its key policy objectives in Europe the budget rebate, enlargement to the east, the single market, more focus on international trade agreements, and the right to stay out of the euro and the Schengen borderless zone. Why should that impressive diplomatic run not continue?

Does "influence" matter?

Yes, and to the UK more than most, argues Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the foreign-policy think tank. That's because we are a notably more open society and economy than most.

Our "prosperity and security are tied to developments around the world: through trade and investment; through vulnerability to the effects of conflicts and the risks associated with ungoverned spaces; and through exposure to severe changes in the climate".

According to Niblett, a nation with the means to influence its external context should seize every chance to do so. "The UK is one of a small number of countries that have this capacity" but inlarge part only to the extent that it can collaborate with like-minded states, and exert power via institutions that share and promote its values.

What influence do we have currently?

In terms of exerting power via global institutions, we don't do too badly. We are one of the EU's "big four" in terms of voting weight and diplomatic clout. We are also a permanent member of the UN Security Council (France is the only other EU member to share this status one major reason why Brexit could also harm the EU's influence), an engaged member of the G20 and G7, a key Nato member, and a founding member of the Commonwealth. We are the second-largest donor (after America) of overseas development aid, and rank highly in international surveys of "soft" power (culture, sport, music, etc).

In recent years we have shown striking openness to rising powers by becoming one of the first non-Asian countries to join China's alternative to the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.Will Brexit jeopardise this?

Not necessarily. The perhaps uncomfortable reality is that the global architecture of international relations is in flux, and the UK which has slashed spending on both defence and diplomacy over the past six years is likely to become less influential whether inside or outside the EU.

For the past 70 years, Britain has enjoyed a relatively privileged position in a Western-dominated global order, but this may "soon by eclipsed", says Niblett, "as rising powers seek more central roles". So the question is: would remaining part of the EU mitigate some of that loss of influence?

The fact that all of our major non-European allies, including America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as China and India have all urged the UK to remain within the EU, does at least give pause for thought.

Why pay attention to them?

Boris Johnson may rail against the double standard of Barack Obama recommending our membership of a group America itself would never join, but traditionally the UK wields a good deal of global influence through its close strategic, intelligence and security relationship with America and the US could not have been clearer that its geopolitical focus is "pivoting" away from Europe towards the Pacific.

It sees the UK as a specifically European power, and Britain's wavering over EU membership has contributed, according to diplomats, to America diversifying key European relationships away from the UK and towards Germany and France.

In terms of how "influence" might play out post-Brexit, there is no way of predicting the future. But there can be little doubt it is one of the areas of greatest risk. That said, if we remain in the EU, threats to our influence remain. As strategic advisory firm Global Counsel noted last year, France has many more staff in the European Commission than we do, and "there is likely to be a serious shortfall... once the current generation nearing retirement leaves".

Would a "leave" vote damage Nato?

The EU is not a military alliance, but it is in practice part of Europe's security architecture. First, close co-operation between the police, border forces and judiciary in the UK and other EU states is a crucial component of this country's counter-terrorism capability.

Second, 22 of its member states are also members of Nato and, in the eyes of Washington at least, the EU is a crucial component of the Western alliance. For example, in the way that EU sanctions have helped limit Russian aggression in Ukraine.

This week the head of the American Army in Europe, Lt-Gen Ben Hodges, said he was worried that a UK "leave" vote would weaken Nato at a time when Russia is "weaponising" the refugee crisis in the Middle East. That's because there's a risk that the EU will unravel if the UK leaves "and there can't help but be a knock-on effect for the alliance also".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.