Brexit would turn UK from “go to” power to “me too” country

by David Hannay | 14.04.2016

No one disputes the fact that Britain outside the EU would continue to be a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and a member of the G7, the G20, the Commonwealth, NATO and of many other international organisations nor that it could conduct a vigorous bilateral diplomacy with countries around the world, just as it does now.

But the question we need to address before we vote in the EU referendum on 23 June is whether, in those circumstances, we would have less influence than we have now, or, as Brexiteers contend, more; whether our membership of these organisations could become something of an empty shell for which no amount of bilateral  diplomacy could compensate.

Outside the EU it seems very probable that Britain would cease to be a “go to” country for any of the main international players when a crisis loomed or a challenge needed to be met. Deprived of our capacity to shape EU policy and no longer so influential in Washington, it is hard to see why any country should head towards London as its first port of call. We have already seen that trend in the case of the Ukraine crisis, when the British government took its eye off the ball in the early stages and left the main policy decisions to be taken by the US, the French and the Germans. So we would end up playing catch-up on the policies decided by others.

The Brexiteers would have us believe that we could convert the Commonwealth into a serious player in international diplomacy. Valuable as the Commonwealth is and will remain as a network, that sort of an ambition is a pure fantasy. The largest and increasingly influential emerging power in the Commonwealth, India, has no desire  and no intention of allowing the organisation to develop in that way; Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand with whom we work so closely will pay much more attention to their relationships with the main powers in their own regions than to a Britain outside the EU.

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    And should our interests require us to play a leading role on any particular issue, we would be very much more vulnerable to pressure and retaliation if we were outside the EU. It is a lot easier to impose economic penalties on one middle-ranking country or to consign it to diplomatic Coventry than it is to take on the whole EU with the largest single market in the world. That increased vulnerability would inevitably lead to a more timid British foreign policy and to us having less scope to promote and uphold our values.

    No doubt Britain’s role in the world will not be the issue at the top of most people’s priorities when they decide how to vote in June. But it should surely be part of the equation. Some of those supporting our withdrawal from the EU would probably welcome an isolationist foreign policy. But that would be the reversal of a long and proud tradition which has enabled us to adapt to changing circumstances and to continue to play a significant role in world affairs.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon