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Boris wrong to claim Brexit won’t affect our European leadership

by Jack Schickler | 19.07.2016

Entering his first EU meeting as Foreign Minister yesterday, Boris Johnson was upbeat about the implications of Brexit on UK foreign policy influence, telling reporters the UK was “not going to be in any way abandoning our leading role in European cooperation and participation of all kinds”. After the meeting, he suggested the EU’s new foreign policy strategy should include “docking stations and doorways” to ensure the possibility of UK involvement from outside the bloc.

Johnson has made similar comments before, but they are at odds with reality. The UK, with its large armed forces and UN security council seat, will remain an important ally of the EU and its members after Brexit – but our influence will undoubtedly diminish.

Some foreign policy levers are within the EU’s power, and those outside the bloc simply do not have access to them. When Germany’s Angela Merkel was seeking to dissuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from reintroducing the death penalty after the recent attempted coup, she reminded him that doing so would disqualify his country from joining the EU. The prospect of EU membership helps encourage change in neighbouring countries like Turkey or the Balkans, but it is an incentive the UK cannot offer if it leaves.

Likewise, given Brussels’ trade powers, it is only as a bloc that the EU can decide to impose trade sanctions – as was done after Russia annexed Crimea. From within the Union, we were able to ensure those sanctions were tough; from outside, we will have little clout.

Even when EU foreign policy hinges on national cooperation rather than centralised powers, in practice the EU’s members are likely to caucus among themselves – under the chairmanship of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and her team – before opening up the discussion to others. The UK would be left with a series of take-it-or-leave it policy choices more than any real influence. And UK participation would only get more complex if Europe stepped up integration and put areas like defence under EU auspices.

Johnson doesn’t like that the European Commission and EU courts might get to stick their noses into foreign policy. But this is also a feature that makes European coordination more coherent, effective, and reliable. In seeking one without the other, the UK is looking to have its gateau and eat it.

In response to Infacts’ request for comment, the Foreign Office’s EU Representation in Brussels had nothing further to add to Johnson’s comments

Edited by Hugo Dixon