Beyond Brexit – Addressing The UK’s Capacity to Engage Globally

Why this important process should be approached as just one step in addressing the bigger global challenges for Britain

The vote to leave the European Union has understandably caused deep emotive reactions, and many of the initiatives, interventions and ideas promoted amongst prominent supporters on both sides demonstrate this, being calls to either find ways of maintaining as many links with the EU as possible – as with Common Ground, or to defend and maintain the aspirations and aims of those who led the leave campaign as with Change Britain. The international affairs think-tank community, which for the most part supported remain, have also on the whole continued with efforts to identify opportunities to preserve the legacy of Britain’s EU membership as much as possible.

What is lacking amongst the continued clamour of voices focusing on Europe is clear, informed, policy relevant thinking, outside of government, on what kind of global role Britain wishes to have, and what tools we will need to support that role. Answering these questions is critical to defining the kind of relationship we wish to have with the European Union.

The UK currently lacks sufficient capacity to externally engage effectively post-Brexit

It is clear that membership of the European Union, whatever its costs, has enabled the UK to outsource certain functions of external engagement – such as trade negotiation, with a telling statistic that whilst medium sized economy Canada has around 300 trade negotiators, and the European Union has around 600, the UK as late as the end of June had 20. Beyond what may be potentially long and complex negotiations with the EU, the UK will almost certainly wish to be pursuing negotiations of varying degrees of formality with other nations, as well as with the World Trade Organisation. This will require a greater number of negotiators than in ‘normal times’ and probably more than any other country of comparable size. It will cost money.

But far more fundamental to Britain’s ability to pursue its global aims, whatever they may be, is the provision of an effective cadre of skilled, empowered and motivated diplomats. If there is one lesson to be learnt from global events of the past ten years it is that while economics may pay the bills, it is politics which drives events which enable, or deny, the permissive environment required for economics to do its work. And politics is all about people and relationships.

Britain used to understand this, and still maintains a strong, if increasingly challenged, reputation for employing and managing the best diplomats in the world – able to pluck advantage for Britain out of the most challenging circumstances.

Yet the reality is that membership of the EU allowed the UK to outsource a significant amount of diplomatic capacity – far beyond that which the small and questionably effective European External Action Service would suggest. EU membership has meant that the UK has often been able to operate in foreign capitals as part EU representative, part messenger, and part sympathetic ‘good cop’ as non-European countries bemoan EU unreasonableness on a certain issue or ask for the UK’s help to promote, overturn or adjust an EU position on a particular issue. All of these things deliver political capital to the UK – opens doors for our diplomats and secures high level meetings and access which our middle income status might otherwise make harder.

Britain’s fraying diplomatic capacity needs investment

The UK has a heritage and brand which delivers us a certain ability to project influence beyond our EU membership. We must build on it, using all the innovative tools of our age to do so and shape it for a modern audience, but alone it will be far from sufficient to maintain, let along extend the influence and position in global affairs many of our citizens, business interests and politicians are likely to expect.

Technology offers valuable tools but it is not a panacea or a substitute for human engagement. The day to day maintenance and relationship building that is both the bedrock and currency of international influence has to be led by diplomats; posted abroad, well trained, with language skills, trustworthy, intelligent and motivated. Sadly, the UK is not nearly so well provisioned in this regard as many assume. At least thirty years of neglect or, at times, hostility within government has pared back diplomatic capacity beyond the bone, with funding falling by over half in the last 20 years alone, leaving current levels edging to just over £1 Billion pounds – just 10% of the Department for International Development’s £10 Billion, and around the same level as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. With this £1 Billion the FCO must maintain a network of 267 offices around the world and just over 4,300 diplomats, as well as carry out all of the functions and programmes required of it to pursue particular goals. Almost anyone objective who has had more than a passing engagement with the UK’s foreign policy apparatus in recent years will tell you that despite the efforts above and beyond what should be expected by our diplomats, the cracks in the FCOs once globally admired operation have not only started to show, but are rapidly becoming fissures. Dwindling numbers of experienced diplomats on increasingly uncompetitive salaries struggle amidst a growing dependence on inexperienced young and non UK staff to keep the appearance up of a confident and capable UK in the world amidst ever growing demands. This despite continued corrosive undermining of their remaining morale and capability by prominent voices in the UK misrepresenting the FCO as still a bastion of 19th century imperial privilege and detachment.

The reality is the UK will need to spend far more on the FCO if we wish to maintain let alone extend our global influence post-Brexit.

Defence spending is insufficient

Similarly we will need to invest far more on defence if we wish to retain and expand our global punch. Thanks largely to accounting strategies the UK just about maintains the 2% GDP spending recommended by NATO, but a begrudging box ticking approach to defence funding is unlikely to impress those who question the UK’s continued relevance as a permanent member on the UN Security Council, or those who would like to aggressively undermine the UK’s interests or territorial claims. We will need to spend more smartly, but we will need to spend more if we are to reverse the much commented decline that is typified by the British Army maintaining fewer soldiers than at any time since 1803.

Great opportunities – but tough spending choices come with costs

So overall, Brexit can and should bring the UK many advantages, not least in our ability to build a distinct modern and positive image for the UK globally in a way which will deliver the trade and alliances our island nation has always depended upon. But there is no getting around the fact that we will need to spend far more on our external engagement, which will need to be funded by cuts elsewhere. The alternative is an erosion of global influence which would ultimately endanger our prosperity and way of life. That is the choice we must make. To fudge it or pretend we can muddle through would be the worst possible response to a historic event which, whether we like it or not will redefine Britain’s relationships, not only with Europe but with the rest of the world for a generation. So whilst Europe is important, we must prioritise the far larger question of how we will support a revitalised set of engagements globally. Those relationships, and how we pursue them, will in turn define the wealth and freedoms we have long taken for granted but which are wholly dependent upon Britain’s place and influence in a fast changing world. To not make hard choices is also a choice, but it is a choice the consequences of which, like Brexit, will impact our everyday lives and our national future for many years to come.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group. He has worked in various roles in the public, private and NGO sectors, including at the charity for children in care Believe, as well as 10 years at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs) followed by 4 years at the engineering, procurement and construction multinational Bechtel. He is the author of numerous reports, chapters and articles on international and foreign policy issues.