It really carries no conviction at all to deny that Britain’s exit from the EU is highly likely to diminish the influence on global affairs of both the UK and the EU. And this at a time when Europe’s influence, even with the UK still a member, is tending to be reduced anyway by the shift in global power towards Asia, the rise of China and the increased assertiveness of Russia.
The EU’s influence cannot but be affected negatively by the loss of one of its larger member states, which has, from the outset, played an important role in shaping its Common Foreign and Security Policy and in such success stories as rolling back Iran’s nuclear programmes. As a Permanent Member of the UN’s Security Council, as a country with world-wide interests and networks of allies, and as one of the only two member states which can still project power outside its borders when this is needed to achieve agreed foreign policy objectives, Britain’s absence from the EU equation will make a difference. But Britain’s influence too will be reduced, however shrilly the supporters of Brexit may assert the contrary. Our voice will count for less in Washington and Brussels. Valuable as the Commonwealth can be, its influence has never depended on whether Britain was or was not a member of the EU and it will not do so in the future.
All this is even more deplorable when you consider that there are no major differences about foreign policy between the UK and the other member states of the EU. We share the same values and most of the same objectives. Together we have invested heavily in building up a rules based international community which is currently being challenged in Ukraine, in the South China Seas and in the Middle East. We uphold and promote the human rights principles set out in the UN’s Universal Declaration. We are major aid donors and are making a serious contribution to combatting climate change. And in most cases we are fellow members of NATO, committed to a policy of deterrence and defence against foreign attack.
So can we together avoid the damaging foreign policy consequences of Brexit? Can we continue to work together as seamlessly and effectively as possible? That ought to be feasible. But it will not be easy. Far more likely we will just drift apart, turning minor differences into grievances and getting at cross purposes quite unnecessarily. And the UK alone will become more vulnerable to outside pressure. Just look what happened to Norway when the Nobel Peace Prize was given to someone of whom China disapproved.
What then needs to be done? In general terms it will be important that, when Article 50 is triggered, we make it clear from the outset that we want there to be a serious and solid foreign and security policy dimension to the new external relationship we would like to negotiate as we firm up in parallel the details of the withdrawal process. The specifics of that dimension will no doubt prove tricky and sensitive to work out. And, if it cannot be done, then there will be yet one more reason for judging the decision taken on 23 June to have been a bad one which was not in the national interest.
Edited by Hugo Dixon