What are the first foreign affairs questions for the new government?

Pro-Palestinian supporters march in front of Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in central London, on 28 May 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP via Getty Images).
Pro-Palestinian supporters march in front of Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in central London, on 28 May 2024. (Photo by BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP via Getty Images).

It’s well-known in the UK that the next government, whoever wins, will face a cascade of difficult domestic problems – the opposition Labour party have even drawn up a list, including prison overcrowding and the prospect of collapsing local councils and universities. All these issues are rightly high on the agenda in the campaign. But a July election will also mean some foreign affairs events and questions will immediately confront the next government.

Under the UK’s rules, Rishi Sunak had until 28 January 2025 to hold an election, and most assumed he would wait for the autumn to see if his poll numbers improved and if UK economic news would get brighter. In the end he went early. While July at least means any prospective new UK government will have some more time to prepare for the November US election and the prospect of a second-term Donald Trump – including his ruthlessly transactional approach to NATO – the new date is far from a reprieve.

The new government, of whatever stripe, will be immediately thrust onto the world stage. The NATO summit will be held 9-11 July in Washington DC. After that, on the 18 July, the UK hosts the European Political Community Summit. Both are important to the UK’s future relationship with Europe and role in European security.

The election campaign has also distracted from pressing questions on Israel and Gaza that will be difficult for any new government to address. And, because current government plans are based on very limited spending forecasts, all of these issues will be underpinned by immediate trade-offs on spending, especially on defence.

European defence and security centre-stage

The NATO Summit will be a quick turnaround for any new or returning prime minister. But the Summit offers any new government opportunities to build relationships with NATO allies, and to shore up its image as a leader in European defence and security – particularly to the American political establishment in Washington DC where it is being held.

Many major parties in the UK – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – have consistently held a staunch line on support to Ukraine and on the UK’s role as a galvanizer of other European allies. The UK is a top donor on its own, but also one prepared to send some types of weapons and support before others, and one closely involved in the coordination of military aid at the beginning of the conflict.

But if Labour wins, they will immediately face the question of whether they will stick to announced Conservative plans to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by 2030. So far Labour have agreed with the goal, but stayed away from confirming the deadline, focused as they are on fiscal caution.

Immediately following that international summit, the UK is poised to confront another one – it is hosting the European Political Community meeting in mid-July on the 18th. The EPC is a format created in 2022 for 47 European countries, beyond just the EU, to coordinate on shared concerns. Sunak has been keen to use the EPC to discuss illegal migration across Europe – to the frustration of some on the continent – who see the grouping as a forum to discuss primarily European security and the shared threat from Russia.

If Labour win, they may wish to use the summit as not just one of the last opportunities to meet multiple European leaders on that issue before a consequential American election, but also a chance to informally develop their proposals about a new defence and security relationship with the EU. But the EPC is still fairly nascent, and while it provides a format to consult with both EU and non-EU allies on shared neighbourhood risks, its purpose as a grouping, and Labour’s readiness to use the meeting to advance these issues, remain unproven.

Israel and Palestine

The beginning of the election campaign in the UK has also distracted from difficult and urgent questions about the UK’s response to the crisis in the Middle East, but these will quickly recur for any new government.

The opposition Labour Party has previously called for the government to publish legal advice on whether Israel has broken international humanitarian law in its war in Gaza and what this means for the UK’s licensing of arms exports to Israel. If Labour win, they will face renewed pressure to clarify how and when they would make a judgement on this issue.

Labour have also said they will resume aid to UNWRA, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees and the largest humanitarian organization in Gaza. The UK paused funding to UNWRA in January 2024 after allegations some staff were linked to the 7 October attacks. Following an independent review many other countries have resumed funding, but the UK has not.

Government ministers have previously said they were waiting for the outcome of an investigation by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) into UNWRA – expected in the next month – to decide, but now the campaign is underway the trajectory of that decision is unclear.

There are humanitarian challenges beyond the UNWRA question to confront. The day before the election was called a report by the UK’s independent aid body raised significant concerns UK aid is not getting into Gaza despite attempts by the government to improve access. Initiatives including aid drops have made ‘little difference’ to a dire situation, according to the report.

The next government, particularly if it seeks a leadership role on aid, will need to decide not just what to do about UNWRA but also its strategy for ensuring aid gets into Gaza. More broadly, a new government will need to clarify its longer-term strategy and stance on the conflict, particularly the conduct of hostilities and how that complies with International Humanitarian Law.

Spending

Underpinning many of these issues is a broader question for any new government, namely what space it will have to spend on foreign policy (or any) priorities, given the UK’s existing fiscal rules.

It’s not just that money is tight within the current frameworks for spending, but that current forecasts are not based on detailed budgets beyond the current year. Those forecasts also imply cuts will be necessary without specifying where, beyond existing or implied pledges to protect or increase spending on some areas.

A new government will likely have to immediately undertake a spending review to set out plans beyond 2024-5 – and pledges to spend more on defence, which both parties have made, will confront difficult fiscal realities.

A July election might have looked like a less geopolitically risky date for the UK, avoiding as it does the clash with the US election. But a new government will confront immediate critical foreign policy events and questions – and underpinning all of these will be the big question: how to fund difficult choices.

Olivia O’Sullivan, Director, UK in the World Programme.

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