Expert View

We must invest in soft power post-Brexit

by David Hannay | 08.05.2017

If Jean-Claude Juncker believes the English language is in retreat across Europe, as he suggested last week, it is he who is living in a different galaxy to the rest of us. Just yesterday the French presidency was won for the first time by a candidate who has no problems giving impromptu television interviews in English.

Never mind. Rather than being irritated, we should be thanking the European Commission president for reminding us just how important soft power post-Brexit – and how English language will be a key element of that.

Just look at three events in the recent past: the agreement to halt Iran’s progress towards acquiring nuclear weapons, the response to Russia’s aggression in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the Paris agreements on combatting climate change. In each of these complex and fraught negotiations, Britain was able to use its membership of the EU to shape the outcome and to multiply its influence. That role will be at risk if we are outside the EU.

When new challenges come along, as they surely will do, we risk becoming a “me too” country as the US and the EU work out responses to them, not the “go to” one we have been up to now. If you doubt that, you only need to look at the fiasco of the foreign secretary’s recent attempt at the G7 meeting in Lucca to agree new sanctions against Syria and Russia.

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What can be done to keep any loss of soft power to the minimum? Well, first, we do need to set out in a persuasive and imaginative way – from the start of the Brexit negotiations next month – our determination to continue working in the closest possible way with our EU partners right across the foreign and security policy board.

Not in precisely the same way as before – that will not be on offer. Not in order to reduce our exit bill – that will not work. But rather on the basis of our shared interests and values, and because there will be mutual benefit to both sides in so doing. Do not doubt that, if we cannot achieve that new partnership, we are likely to slip into misunderstanding and rivalry and that will be to neither side’s advantage.

And then, faced with the risks to our soft power, we do need to put more effort and more resources into the instruments that strengthen our influence world wide: into our diplomacy and our development aid; into the BBC World Service and the British Council; into our role as the second largest supplier of higher education services to the leaders of the future generations.

Strengthening those instruments will also make us a more attractive partner to the rest of Europe and a more effective one when we are working together. Are we doing that? Not really; and, when we do, only fitfully and half-heartedly. Our diplomacy is being starved of resources and somewhat erratically led. Our universities are being handicapped by the bizarre practice of treating overseas students as economic migrants. So there is a long way to go if we are to be properly equipped to make the most of the opportunities in a post-Brexit world. Let us hope the next government gets that message and acts upon it.

Edited by Hugo Dixon