Brexit might be a good thing for the British foreign policy

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Britain still finds itself in a post-Brexit limbo where there are more questions than answers. While the new government has been formed very quickly, it became clear just as quickly that overruling the Brexit results is not an option and Brexit is the official government policy even if the current prime-minister Theresa May was in the Remain Camp. With new terms such as “hard Brexit” and “moderate Brexit” the country is now exploring all the different shades of it.

Leaving EU might have negative consequences for many areas and institutions, but there will be also those benefitting from it. One of them might be Foreign Office that will be conducting British foreign policy without any European strings attached, will work harder to prove it is still committed to the partners, and, actually, might get more money to do this – unless the money goes to the newly formed Brexit department. Rethinking Russia explores the details of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy with the professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London, special adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and director of the Centre “UK in a Changing Europe” at King’s – Anand Menon.

Rethinking Russia: What does Brexit mean for the UK foreign policy? Is it possible to build a constructive European foreign policy when the national government has a cabinet minister with a job title “Secretary of State for exiting the European Union”?

Anand Menon: These are two separate things. I think in terms of our foreign policy it will have a relatively minor impact, and insofar as it does have an impact, I suspect it will be to make us a more active foreign policy partner to the Europeans and the Americans than we were previously if only because we are trying to compensate for the fear on their part that we are disengaging. Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May have said this that Brexit is not about disengaging, it is simply about not being a member of the EU while continuing to cooperate closely with our partners. So what I think we will see is the British government making real efforts to signal this very clearly to our partners. For instance, at the NATO summit Britain agreed to send more trainers to Eastern Europe and I think we will see more and more of that. London will try to prove that we are still a reliable ally.

RR: Do you think London will manage to separate the two? Because Brussels and many other European capitals are really hurting because of Brexit…

AN: Well, Brexit will obviously affect the relations. However, since most EU foreign policy cooperation is inter-governmental, it will be possible to cooperate from the outside. We will end up strengthening out bilateral cooperation with the key European states. We will see, for example, the military cooperation with the French being strengthened. We will find other channels to work with our partners when it comes to both military and foreign policy.

RR: So do you think UK actually will be able to capitalize on its new status in these areas?

AN: I would not use the word “capitalize” but what I would say is we will be keen to illustrate that we are still a loyal ally we were before.

RR: In which areas do you think UK will suffer?

AN: The issue that will be central to the new relationship is the economy. It is possible that our economy will suffer a lot because of Brexit, in the end most economists argued that it would. We have to wait and see what the nature of that effect is but clearly if our economy takes a hit from Brexit, it will affect everything, including foreign policy.

RR: But what about losing the chance to be part of the European common and defense policy, for example in the European neighborhood? London will not have the possibility to have its voice heard anymore…

AN: I am sure that we will coordinate with our European partners. I will be very much surprised to see UK adopting policies for the neighborhood that will be drastically different from these of the EU and I think that wherever possible we will act together. It is not that the EU neighborhood policy has been a sterling success up to now.

RR: Will we be seeing kind of “joint statement of EU and UK on Bosnia and Herzegovina”?

AN: Yes, I think we will see joint statements. UK will pledge its bilateral support to those countries and also work with the European Union. For instance, if EU is sending a civilian or a military mission somewhere, it is totally conceivable that Britain will participate in it.

RR: Now it seems like in terms of foreign policy there is not much to be sad about! You sound very optimistic.

AN: I do not think that foreign policy is an area that is going to be particularly badly hit to be honest. And I simply do not know what are the implications for our economy. It is too soon. Chances are that there will be negative effects on the economy but what we do not know is how big that will be and how long it will last. If you call me back in three years and UK has been hit by recession that shows no sign of moving, I will reassess my opinion and say that Brexit has been bad because it would affect inevitably the foreign policy. But right now specifically in the area of foreign policy I am relatively relaxed about the consequences of Brexit. In fact, I wrote a piece for the FT a couple of months before the referendum saying that Brexit could make UK a better ally rather than worse ally. And I still believe that.

RR: Why is that?

AN: Because as I said before we would have to compensate for the fears that we are disengaging and we would have to address those fears and do that by becoming even more loyal than ever.

RR: Do you think there is a desire in the Foreign Office to have a fresh start in terms of shaping a new foreign policy? In which areas do you think there will be changes?

AN: I think so and a lot will depend on the decisions that government takes. There was a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee a few months before the referendum in which they said that Brexit would be fine but one of the things that has to happen is there has to be greater investment into the Foreign Office to compensate for the effects of Brexit.

RR: It is interesting how in many places in London Brexit results brought sadness and gloom while actually it might have boosted the morale of the Whitehall because they will have new opportunities to shape the new foreign policy and probably will have more money to do it…

AN: Possibly but we do not know any of that yet. Right now in the Foreign Office there is a feeling of uncertainty because no one knows what is going to happen. We need to see whether the government has the resources and whether the new Brexit department will take the resources from the Foreign Office in which case we will have to reassess our situation.

RR: What kind of Foreign Secretary will Boris Johnson be? On the one hand, he has a strong profile as a mayor of the world’s most international city, but on the other hand he had so many diplomatic gaffes in his articles, not to mention his role as the front man for Brexit…

AN: I have no idea. I believe he will not be as gaffe prone as he used to be and he will be a lot more careful. Foreign Office’s policies will be decided by the government as a whole, not by Boris Johnson alone. He will not be able to conduct his own foreign policy. It is of course his style that is interesting.

RR: Should we expect any changes towards Russia? In the past he made a few statements that were quite different from the ones made by the UK government…

AN: A lot of people said many things that they regretted straight after. We need to revisit all of this in September when we will know what Theresa May’s policy is and then we will know better. I think we had this wild period when everyone was resigning and were saying the first things that were coming into their heads, the political parties did not have an opinion. Like, for example, Jeremy Corbyn straight after the referendum said that the article 50 must be triggered straight away which was the opposite of the official Labour party policy. Everyone said things that they have come to regret and I do not think it is fair or helpful to focus on these comments. Things need to calm down a little bit and then everything will become clear.

Interview by Yulia Netesova

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