2016 was a historic year in Britain’s history. 40 years of drift in Europe ended. After the referendum, what does Britain do next in Europe and the world? Will she continue as a surly neighbour to Europe or can she lead a continent in danger?
With or without Britain’s tilt to Trump, the government needs to chart a fresh start for her troubled relationship with Europe. We need to harness the pride Britain has in its history, work through the prejudice Britain has against Europe and produce a new vision of British clout in Europe which the public will support, something called smart power. Brexit means leaving the EU, but not Europe. Europe is governed not only by the EU but by a host of other organisations from NATO to the Council of Europe. British leaders from Macmillan to Cameron tried to use them to leverage smart power in their approach to Europe. All with a view to forging Churchill’s vision – a long-term plan to put Britain at the heart of Europe, the Commonwealth and the United States.This is the background to the unfolding revolution in Britain’s foreign policy. Without Trump, Britain’s Brexit choice would just look quirky. With Trump, it was the first roll of the nationalist wave that May, unexpectedly. now surfs. As the government negotiates Brexit a big question is how damaging seceding from the European Union would be. Theresa May not only has to negotiate a 6 pack of difficult deals to create a settled post-Brexit order she has to win friends (up to 147 states) and influence people (27 European leaders alone) in doing so – in many cases against their interests. So far, losing friends and alienating people is the policy for a winning Brexit. The one thing both Remainers and Leavers agreed on was that both wanted a stronger Britain after the vote. In or out of the EU, few saw Britain abandoning the global ship, retreating from 200 years of global influence. Though it was absent from the campaign, many remainers wanted Britain and its like-minded allies to lead not leave Europe and use our clout to help sort out a continent in crisis. Many Brexiteers saw Brexit unleashing a buccaneering Britain back onto the world stage. But far from an exciting fresh start emerging from the new regime, Brexit so far has meant a mean-spirited battle over how many people we stop coming and how many businesses we stop leaving conducted in atmosphere baffling to our allies, far more angry than enlightened. Instead what we have is the UK perceived by our partners as being in full diplomatic retreat as the very time where our diplomatic visibility needs to be far greater than it has ever been. If Brexit is to deliver its promise and not damage us, the Government must understand the need to properly engage with both the EU and bilaterally with EU member states and to develop a “vision” of a “SmartPower” foreign policy for the UK beyond Brexit, and not allow ourselves to be deluded that Brexit makes us winners in the world as we actually slip-down the league table of global influence.
Director, British Influence