Despite its claims of exceptionalism and the freedom to succeed outside of the European Union, in reality, the UK is no longer in the room where it happens, says former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

As the crisis in Ukraine heats up, and the Prime Minister flew to Kyiv in a muscular show of British diplomacy, I am reminded of a recent exchange I had with a former British diplomat, who criticised me for suggesting that, post-Brexit, Britain had less influence in foreign policy.

The diplomat, a former ambassador to Germany, argued that it did not make much difference that the UK was no longer in the EU because, just like the Americans, we were perfectly capable of engaging or lobbying EU diplomats from outside of the bloc.

His comment was reflective of a line of thought often expressed by Brexit supporters: that, free of the ‘shackles’ of Brussels, the UK is now able to pursue a far more effective and ambitious foreign policy. I strongly disagree. 

In fact, the suggestion that Britain can be just like the US is ironic on its very face, since many American foreign policy experts regret Brexit precisely because the UK is no longer as valuable to them as an ally – because we are now unable to play a direct role in shaping EU policy or narrowing differences with America. 

It should, in fact, be obvious that it makes a huge difference to be inside the room, attending an EU meeting – rather than outside the room, trying to find out what happened after the event or chasing attendees to change their mind if we don’t like what they have agreed.

Brexit supporters often criticise the EU for being an opaque and cumbersome machine. Now, we are the victims of that. We can certainly ask for a briefing, or try to engage members individually. But, Britain is reliant on what they choose to tell us. And, as Brexiters like to complain, once the EU has made up its mind, it can be hard to shift its position. 


Making and Shaping Decisions

The assertion that the UK can simply lobby EU countries from outside also fails to take into account how decisions are actually made in the EU.

EU foreign policy is never the result of one vote, after one discussion, at one formal meeting of foreign ministers, prime ministers or presidents, sitting around a long table in Brussels. Rather, it is the culmination of dozens of smaller meetings and encounters both in Brussels and at EU embassies around the world, all of which feed into the decision-making process.

In Brussels, geographical committees consider the regional dimensions of a particular crisis. Economic committees consider the trade and economic aspects. Other committees consider the sanctions, human rights, aid or development implications and options.

Overseas, embassies meet to discuss the situation with each other and send back their analyses and recommendations. EU missions also exchange information and coordinate with each other at the UN; at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE); at the World Trade Organisation; or other international institutions that might be discussing the relevant issue at hand.

All of this information gets fed back up the chain to foreign ministries in capitals before they, in turn, instruct their diplomats what position to take at the decisive meetings in Brussels. 

EU views are also shaped not just by these formal processes, but by hundreds of informal interactions which take place before and after meetings, in corridors outside rooms, through phone calls, over lunches, coffees, and other social occasions – in Brussels and around the world.

In EU capitals, a foreign ministry might organise a dedicated briefing on its position just for EU diplomats or offer special access by EU ambassadors to a head of state or other senior members of government.

In third countries, the EU mission and other EU embassies frequently organise briefings for each other with outside experts, representatives from the host government or the opposition, from NGOs, think tanks, business leaders or other opinion-formers in the country where they are based.

Some EU member states may have a particular historical connection with the country which gives them insight; their ambassador may have established a better rapport with the president; or some of their diplomats may have useful knowledge from a political or business contact which they have developed. 

British diplomats may indeed be among the best in the world, and they can certainly try to gather the same information through their own contacts and efforts. But they cannot be everywhere, all the time. And it is arrogant to assume that they always have better knowledge.

By coordinating with EU counterparts, being inside the room and pooling knowledge, British diplomats were able flesh-out their own understanding of a situation. They could try to steer the conversation in their preferred direction. They could also get a first-hand sense of the balance of opinion within the room, where obstacles might lie, which countries were most dug-in or most supportive of their point of view.

This knowledge was not only useful in its own right, but it also helped British diplomats to brief ministers with the most effective arguments to persuade other EU members to come round to our point of view. 

By contrast, now that they may only get a partial briefing at best after the event, not only do they have less idea of the internal dynamics which may lead to an EU decision, they might also completely misunderstand the reasoning behind that decision, or which countries they most need to target to shift views.

Many is the time, in fact, when British diplomats used to be exasperated by the heavy-handed lobbying methods of some American diplomats, who had failed to distinguish between the nuanced views of different EU member states, and sometimes even exacerbated differences by rubbing diplomats up the wrong way. Now we are in the same position ourselves. 


Strawman Arguments

None of this is to imply that the EU is the only foreign policy-making body which matters, or that all of Britain’s foreign policy should be channelled through the EU. However, the attitude that the UK doesn’t really need the EU to be influential both over-estimates our own impact and underestimates the strength and impact of the EU as a foreign policy player. 

The UK, of course, does possess many powerful assets: its security and intelligence machinery; a global diplomatic network; a position as a permanent member of the Security Council; its membership of NATO; links to the Commonwealth; our large aid budget; the ‘soft power’ impact of our creative industries; its world-class universities; the English language; the BBC; the British Council and so on. 

Outside the EU, the UK is free to move more nimbly and decisively, without the need to coordinate with others. But, as a middle-sized power, it just stands to reason that our actions have more impact if they are implemented with others. The easiest example is sanctions – which only work if they are widely applied.

Moreover, at a time when the Government is urgently looking to sign new trade deals with countries around the world to compensate for the loss of trade with the EU, it is a far riskier proposition for the UK to take bold stances on sensitive issues such as human rights or internal conflicts. Outside the EU, we are a far easier target to pick-off with counter-measures. Are we really willing to stand up to China, Saudi Arabia or other influential powers by ourselves?

Conversely, as the world’s largest trading bloc, the second largest economy in the world, and also the largest development donor in the world (if you add together contributions from individual EU states, as well as what they donate collectively through the European Commission) the EU has both significant clout and many tools at its disposal.

When the EU decides to criticise or sanction another country, a significant juggernaut of measures can be rolled-out, reinforced by complementary action by individual members states. It is also harder for any third country to retaliate because it would be taking on not just the machinery of the EU, but the governments of the 27 member states as well, who tend to have each others’ backs in such situations.

Another argument which is often advanced is that, given every EU member state has a veto on foreign policy, the UK was often dragged down to accepting the ‘lowest common denominator’ decision. But the converse was also often true – many times, an outlier member state was persuaded to adopt a more robust position that it might have done by itself through sheer peer pressure.

That same veto provided Britain with the ultimate insurance that the EU could never implement a foreign policy action against its will. Now, the EU can adopt whatever position it wants on foreign policy, whether we like it or not, even if it runs directly counter to our own national interests. 

Finally, there is the argument that, outside of the EU, the UK is free to engage more actively with the rest of the world, fulfilling its ambition to be ‘Global Britain’. But this relies completely on a strawman theory.

The UK has always been a global foreign policy player – being in the EU never stopped it from deciding where it wanted to focus its diplomatic efforts, build up bilateral relations, or cooperate on security or intelligence matters. Britain took part in EU dialogues with third countries, but was also free to develop its own bilateral relationships with those countries.

The much-heralded AUKUS submarine deal – between the UK, the US and Australia, announced last September – could have gone ahead whether Britain was in or out of the EU. In fact, we were always free to go further and more ambitiously beyond the EU position. 

Unfortunately, so extreme has government anathema to the EU now become that it has also deprioritised establishing new foreign policy coordination mechanisms with the EU to replicate the ones we have left. 

In a foreign policy speech at Chatham House last year, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss could barely even bring herself to mention the EU by name. At present, consultation with our former EU partners, which used to be automatic and extensive is ad hoc, issue by issue, and reliant on their goodwill. It requires British diplomats to work twice as hard to access the same knowledge and the same contacts which we used to have for free.

More’s the pity therefore that, after years of downsizing British embassies in EU capitals, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is now facing even further cuts to its budget and staff. 


Blinding Exceptionalism

The entire argument around Global Britain is based on a misguided sense of our own importance. 

Far from detracting from the UK’s foreign policy influence, its membership of the EU used to multiply our reach and effectiveness.

Tory hawks and right-wing British media outlets may enjoy their current wallowing in self righteousness, as they froth about Germany’s so-called ‘appeasement’ of Russia, and the alleged feebleness of the EU as whole. They may complacently pat themselves on the back over the UK’s sterner stance on Ukraine and herald this as a benefit of Brexit. The current crisis provides them with the perfect narrative of plucky Britain showing leadership, drawing on glorious Churchillian imagery. 

But I do not believe that the world buys it.  

I believe that friends and foes alike see a lonelier picture, of an embattled Prime Minister trying to distract from problems at home by posturing on the world stage. The Ukrainians may welcome the strong support the British Government is currently giving them; the US may be glad of an ally.

But does Boris Johnson really add much to their efforts? Does he carry any other countries with him? Will his visit to Ukraine significantly shape and inform the position of others? Will his grandstanding make substantive difference to the calculations of Russia? And, most worrying of all, is it motivated by genuine conviction, or by domestic expediency?

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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