Post Brexit, Does Devon need an International Vision?

This event brought together people from across Devon as well as further afield to discuss Devon and the wider region’s place in the world and in UK foreign policy concerns. A collaboration between Exeter University’s Strategic Studies Institute and the British Foreign Policy Group, this was the 6th of the BFPG’s national engagement events in different parts of the UK to support understanding and engagement on the UK’s place in the world.

Two panels of speakers addressed respectively the wider issues of the UK’s current international position and choices, and Devon’s particular needs and concerns. Panellists, listed below, came from governmental, national and regional organisations.  As with others, this event demonstrated that Devon has complex and specific international interests that are not always felt to be understood or reflected in national UK foreign policy making. Specific concerns were partly but not entirely informed by the context of Brexit. The need to better service local economic growth through exports was a central concern, with agriculture and the urgency of opening new markets globally whilst minimising obstacles in relation to European exports a key challenge. A view expressed a number of times was that the region’s economic interests did not appear to be adequately reflected in UK trade promotion activities – a view in line with those expressed at our other events. Another area highlighted was in relation to skills, and the importance of imported skilled labour from abroad for the region’s economy. The example of the Scilly Isles – where tourism demands far outstrip the capacities of the islands small population –  was raised to show this was not an issue of developing more home-grown skills capacity.

The first panel highlighted a growing awareness that Brexit is just one amongst many sources of volatility approaching the UK. The audience’s electronic voting results on the day showed Russia was viewed as one of the most important threats facing the UK Post-Brexit. Views were split on other challenges, with a number of audience members highlighting the nature of the diverse combination threats as amounting to a significant threat in itself. Audience voting on the post-Brexit priorities for the UK highlighted securing international peace and stability as the most popular priority in the room, though with securing new trade deals a close second. Climate Change and cybersecurity were also highlighted as major concerns. The session also underlined the fact that whatever the positives or negatives of Brexit, the UK is a major global power with both global reach and global responsibilities. This is particularly true in relation to development where the UK remains one of the few countries committing 0.7% GNI equivalent to development spending. It was made clear how, at it’s best, this spending both builds prosperity, but also addresses the root cause of major threats to the UK.

The second panel focussed on more region-specific challenges and opportunities for engaging internationally, as well as how international events will impact the region. The US Administration withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear agreement was given as an example of a seemingly remote event that could well push up oil prices and negatively impact Devon’s economy. A central concern was over the region’s identity and coherence when it came to projecting internationally. There was a sense that current arrangements for projecting the region’s identity domestically and overseas are often contradictory, incoherent and overlapping. In some circumstances the South West includes cities as far afield as Bristol, Swindon and Poole, and in other cases only Devon and Cornwall. The more geographically expansive arrangements in particular were not seen as sufficiently serving Devon’s economic character and requirements. A related challenge raised was over poor infrastructure and connections to the outside world. The immediate Devon and Cornwall region is served by just two airports – Newquay and Exeter, both of which themselves dependent on a few key airlines and routes. Rail & road connections are also relatively poorly developed. The importance of tourism and agriculture to the regional economy was repeatedly emphasised, with concern expressed about customs arrangements post-Brexit, particularly in relationship to northern continental Europe which is seen as having strong trading, cultural and touristic links with Devon. It was pointed out Chinese visitor numbers are small compared to other parts of UK, but the Commonwealth was raised a number of times as a potential opportunity for boosting visitor numbers. Arrangements for the export of agricultural goods was raised repeatedly.  Yet an important counterpoint was that businesses in the region need to think more globally and a key point made was that Devon appears sometimes to suffer disproportionately from an inward-looking parochialism that needs to be addressed if the opportunities ahead are to be seized. The upcoming Mayflower 400 celebrations in 2020 to celebrate 400 years since The Mayflower sailed to Massachusetts was highlighted as a particular opportunity for the region.

The event concluded with a strong message that Devon and Cornwall need to be at the core of a more galvanised and practical efforts to advance the region’s international and national interests. Ideas ranged from rebranding itself ‘The Green Peninsula’ or ‘The Great South West’. Whatever it is called there was a strong sense that the challenges ahead demand a decluttered and proactive regional engagement effort to reach out to central government and internationally if Devon’s interests are to be secured and opportunities maximised in an increasingly crowded domestic and international environment.

Panel 1

Panel 2

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.