United-Kingdom: Britain’s foreign policy, in between the EU and the world

Britain’s foreign policy – in between the EU and the world

Bogdan Deleanu is a former student from the Institute for European Studies in Brussels. He now works as a consultant in the European Parliament as well as in « Europuls »

30 years after its decisive victory in the Falklands War over Argentina, many wonder if Great Britain is still capable of such a feat. Does it still have the force, now that it lacks its own aircraft carrier and has to operate one jointly with France? More importantly, does it have the will? Looking at recent declarations and positions, it seems that Britain focuses more on its partners and allies than on the outside world.

Perhaps it is the complicated matter of running a coalition government between two factions in no way alike, in a country without much experience in this kind of difficult marriage. Perhaps the daily chore of finding consensus between a very « hard » Conservative Party and the more « soft » Liberals takes too much time to focus on other things. The burden of being ‘active and activist’ in Europe, meaning that protecting British interests inside the EU stands at the same level as projecting them outside by means of the EU, must weigh heavily in comparison with other Member States, which are in a much more involved state of mind.

There is indeed a certain irony when it comes to the UK’s complicated relationship with the Union, in the field of foreign affairs. If in other areas (notably agriculture, fishery policy and such) the British are understandably concerned over Brussels-based decisions, in the field of foreign policy it largely stands to gain. After all, the High Representative for the EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is Baroness Catherine Ashton, one of Her Majesty’s subjects (even if she is a Labour politician). Back in 2009 when she was chosen for this job, it seemed like a good compromise, placating and ensuring the UK would have a say in one of the most important fields of EU policy.

However, a summary search of the British press on Baroness Ashton yields little more but criticism over the spending of her External Action Service, or criticism over her actions (or lack of) in various crises. This is pretty much in line with the mainstream view of most things EU-related in the Isles. Perhaps the sweet life in Brussels has softened Ms Ashton, but the fact remains that Britain’s greatest asset in Brussels in what concerns foreign affairs failed to deliver.

What could she have delivered anyway? What is it that Great Britain actually wants when it comes to the great big world beyond its islands and beyond the continental Union it is, through very binding agreements, a part of? If in the world nobody doubts there are things which are clearly « British », what foreign policy goals can be described likewise? After all, French interests in various Sub-Saharan African countries are by now as French as the croissant, and Italian interests to oil rich Libya are similarly well known. Even Poland is increasingly making a name for itself in, out of all places, Central Asia. The Middle East is everybody’s business, while Europe is too far away from South-East Asia to matter in the delicate game of straits and missiles. And as for the Arctic, well, the ice is still melting.

Perhaps the recent debate around the Falklands war brought so much attention because, well, that is a part of the world that remains 100% on the British agenda. What else is clearly in the interest of this small island with a big defense budget?

By no means can we say, however, that it does nothing. If anything, Great Britain is one of the most active players in world affairs. The UK currently has troops in Afghanistan and a small contingent in Cyprus, rotates ships and commanders in some EU missions, notably NAVFOR ATALANTA in the Horn of Africa. British missiles bombed Gaddafi’s forces in Libya and the Royal Navy was instrumental in the naval blocked of various ports.

It has both individual and joint programmes and strategies for counter-terrorism, cyber security, CBNR, arms control, conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction, dedicating both money and manpower in all these fields. It is the leading country of the Commonwealth and its imperial legacy lingers, keeping many territories and regions very interested in what Westminster says and does. Westminster itself seems less and less to be the original actor it used to be.

This narrowing down of unique British interests will probably not be helped by the incoming debate on Scottish independence. Used for so long to dominate the world, the British have obviously found it hard even to adapt their mindsets to the cohabitation inside the European Union. What will cohabitation inside their own island do to their worldview? In fact, cohabitation is already an issue. Immigration control has always been very sensitive for the UK. It is in no way original when it comes to this, see the Schengen debate in France in 2011, but the fact remains that in a ‘Fortress Europe’, the UK would be its strongest redoubt. Its politicians often justify external action spending to their voters by using the « this will prevent immigration » card, more so perhaps than any other European nation.

Eventually, this peculiar attitude inside the EU, as well as its long term relation with the US, which at points could be seen as mimetic in external affairs, have led to a Britain today that is rather in between places. It neither is fully committed to the CSDP, but it takes part in it enough to upset the hard-line NATO fans in its Parliament. It has a voice in the UN, but its voice is always overshadowed by the US, which it follows, or France, with which it should be on equal footing. Currently the fact remains that at least until 2016; hard military projection capability for the UK will rely on a ship called « Charles de Gaulle », its own modern aircraft carriers still in construction.

It will be very interesting to see how Britain emerges from this moment of « in between ». The end of a hung parliament and its security sector reform might both significantly lead to a stronger position in world affairs. The Scottish vote, its treaty with France and the increasing interdependence, the affirmation of the EU as a whole, or of other Member States, and the increasing power of the ‘BRICS’  are all however factors that can make it even less important and less powerful. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in the long run. Maybe this will finally push Britain to embrace its European nature and accept itself as fully part of this partnership. If anything, that would take a little bit of pressure from the shoulders of those British diplomats who, instead of following events on the Globe, still focus a little too much on what transpires on the Old Continent.

Phrases de rappel : « Perhaps the sweet life in Brussels has softened Ms Ashton, but the fact remains that Britain’s greatest asset in Brussels in what concerns foreign affairs failed to deliver » et « Used for so long to dominate the world, the British have obviously found it hard even to adapt their mindsets to the cohabitation inside the European Union »