The UK is not having the foreign policy debate that it desperately needs in this general election campaign. EU membership helped to shape the UK’s international priorities for more than 40 years, and Brexit will require the new government to think carefully about its role on the global stage. Yet, the party manifestos published this week do not spill much ink on broader ambitions for the UK. On the contrary, they suggest that Britain’s political parties have yet to figure out what British foreign policy should look like post-Brexit.
Theresa May, the prime minister, was the first to make reference to the UK’s international role post-Brexit in her Conservative Party conference speech in October last year. ‘Global Britain’ is supposed to signify a ‘reboot’ of UK foreign policy which is truly internationalist in focus — that is, actively promoting free trade and cooperating closely with allies to build a safe and just world. How these priorities will differ from existing ones is unclear: recent overseas visits offered little clarity, focusing largely on export opportunities rather than creating or strengthening new strategic partnerships.
The Conservative Party is not alone in the paucity of its foreign and security manifesto ambitions. Jeremy Corbyn’s past foreign policy preoccupations might have been expected to give Labour’s foreign policy commitment added spice. Yet, there is little to choose between the two main parties — Labour and the Tories look fairly interchangeable on foreign policy. Both are committed to maintaining defence spending and overseas development assistance at present levels, as well as achieving a Brexit deal that puts the UK’s national interest first, although they disagree on how negotiations should be conducted and what final agreement the government should work towards.
The language used by both parties about Britain’s nuclear deterrent shows differences in tone and emphasis, rather than in policy. And on defence, both recognize the need to continue working with EU partners through NATO. However, in Corbyn’s recent speech at Chatham House, he suggested the possibility of cooperating with the EU in its operational missions. This marks a difference of approach with those who see EU defence cooperation as undermining NATO.
For the EU and other countries around the world wondering what the UK’s priorities are, the manifestos are unlikely to provide much clarity. Neither challenges the view overseas that ‘global Britain’ is no more than a slogan. Even the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party’s foreign policy pledges are comfortable and cosy rather than worthy of debate.
Yet, the UK’s decision to leave the EU will lead to a major recalibration of the country’s foreign policy, for which creative thinking must start now. This will require not just a vision but a clear roadmap on the best way to deliver that: how to cooperate with allies, and in which areas, how to balance the use of diplomacy (for which more resources will be needed), and defence and development instruments at the UK’s disposal. Exiting the EU gives the UK scope to re-engineer its overseas image, its global influence and its international leadership aspirations — it is regrettable that the UK’s political parties have reduced future opportunity to leaden prose in their manifestos.
Georgina Wright, Research Assistant and Coordinator, Europe and Professor Richard G Whitman, Associate Fellow, Europe Programme.
This article was originally published in The Times.