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United Kingdom: Europe’s ‘diplomatic vanguard’

Since leaving the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK) has taken a position as Europe’s diplomatic vanguard.  This has been demonstrated by Whitehall’s renewed focus on core European interests, greater autonomy in diplomatic activity as a result of acting outside of Brussels’ orbit, and the development of novel foreign policy initiatives. The UK is thus pioneering the development of strategic responses to Europe’s major state-based threats, with foreign policy on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia as important examples. 

Focusing solely on disagreements over the implementation of Brexit-related agreements and on EU-UK spats over vaccine procurement obscures a more profound development within European diplomacy. Since Brexit the UK has demonstrated greater coherence and clarity of intent on the most significant state-based threats to Europe than is currently being shown by Europe’s other large countries, or collectively by the EU. 

Appreciation of the UK’s diplomatic sure-footedness has been obscured by the over-attention given to EU-UK disputes. The UK-EU trading relationship is an important component of Europe’s political economy but it does not represent the sole determinant of Europe’s political, economic and security order. Withdrawal and Trade and Cooperation Agreement implementation challenges – such as those on the market regulation arrangements for Northern Ireland and the bedding-in of new arrangements for fisheries licencing – have been presented as confirmation of a disputatious ‘new normal’ in the UK’s relationships with European neighbours. 

However, a more considered analysis shows that these are issues that are being addressed through the treaty-derived institutional arrangements created to manage the EU-UK relationship on trade and market-access related issues. Managing disagreements through the institutional arrangements created to manage disagreements is evidence of diplomacy at work, not of a failing relationship – even if accompanied by intemperate public diplomacy.

A broader re-appraisal by continental European states of Britain’s place in Europe post-Brexit had been largely subordinated to the focus on the future of the EU-UK relationship. This lack of strategic thinking has, of course, been compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a neighbouring European state, the UK has been caught up in the EU’s political turbulence related to Covid-19. This has been most obviously demonstrated in the UK-European Commission disputes over vaccination production and procurement. But injudicious statements on the safety of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine by Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and other European leaders have conveyed an impression of churlishness rather than the recognition that a successful British vaccination programme is a collective gain for Europe.

Leaving the EU has been a spur to rethinking the UK’s broader diplomatic strategy including the implications for its place in Europe. Whitehall has had the benefit of structured reconsideration of the purpose of Britain’s diplomatic and security position in Europe as part of the wider Integrated Review[↗] process. The Integrated Review has drawn criticism[↗] in the UK and on the continent for being light on EU-related content. This misses the point; although brief on the EU, the published outcome is strongly focused[↗] on the Euro-Atlantic region. The centrality of this region as where the UK’s security energies will be expended runs through the document. And in its assessment of Russia as an ‘acute and direct threat’ the Integrated Review demonstrates[↗] that the UK’s first-order European diplomatic concern is a focus on the primary state-based security threat in Europe.  

The Integrated Review’s position on Russia is an unambiguous piece of public diplomacy. It draws on the high degree of consistency that the UK has demonstrated in its policy towards Russia since the invasion of Ukraine and bolstered by the Salisbury poisonings. As an EU state, the UK supported a robust financial and trade sanctions policy towards Russia. This position was further strengthened by Britain’s new post-Brexit sanctions regime which expanded beyond a country-specific approach to encompass new human rights and anti-corruption sanctions regimes. The Integrated Review also promises to uphold a firm defence posture towards Russia and support for Eastern European countries, primarily through NATO. And also noteworthy is reference to the UK’s military training and capacity building operation to Ukraine – Operation Orbital[↗] – which has been expanded  since its establishment in 2015.

The EU’s collective response has remained pusillanimous in contrast, despite Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea and ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, as well as hostile acts on its own countries’ territories and malign interventions in the politics and economics of Europe. EU member states’ collective policy towards Russia has remained coalesced around economic sanctions, and these have been the subject of tinkering rather than any significant ratcheting up. France and Germany, who have taken on the role as the European leads on diplomacy on Ukraine, via the ‘Normandy process’, have not demonstrated leadership on Russia. Germany has pressed ahead with the completion of the Nord Stream II pipeline and Macron has in the recent past pursued fruitless unilateral diplomatic initiatives undermining collective-action. 

Even Russia’s build-up of armed forces on Ukraine’s border in April, alongside Alexei Navalny’s continued ill-treatment, has not resulted in a substantive collective EU policy shift or hardening of the positions of Berlin and Paris beyond the rhetorical. France and Germany both continue to maintain a position of engagement with Moscow rather than ostracisation. Furthermore, some backsliding on Russia has been evident, with a number of EU countries being receptive to Russia’s vaccine diplomacy. Some have sought to procure the Sputnik V vaccine, while the French and German leaders have discussed joint production of the vaccine with Vladimir Putin. 

The UK’s stance on Russia as an acute threat to European security and the consistency of its policy approach provides a distinctive stance that aligns with that of the administration of Joe Biden and has significant receptivity in Eastern Europe and among Baltic and Nordic states.  

On the PRC, the UK has also offered an alternative foreign and security approach to that adopted by EU countries. The UK’s approach towards China has undergone a significant recalibration in the last two years. It has evolved from David Cameron’s ‘golden era’, through the landmark decision in July 2020 to ban the use of Huawei’s equipment in the British 5G network, through to the characterisation of China in the Integrated Review as a ‘systemic competitor’. 

The PRC’s policies towards Hong Kong and the Uyghurs have cemented Britain’s policy stance and driven a highly engaged set of responses, including providing the opportunity for Hong Kong residents to settle in the UK. This position on the PRC illustrates an emergent characteristic of Britain’s post-Brexit diplomacy: an increasingly plurilateral-focused foreign policy. The UK’s Group of Seven presidency has been used to develop a more far reaching collective position on the PRC. And, as the UK’s joint approach with Australia, Canada and the United States (US) on Hong Kong demonstrates, the use of groups of like-minded states outside Europe to pursue issues of collective interest can also spur European action: France and Germany followed the lead of the ‘Five Eyes’ partners in suspending extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Unlike other European states the UK has also resisted the PRC’s ‘Health Silk Road’ with the latter’s push to supply personal protective equipment and vaccines. 

In contrast, the EU’s policy towards the PRC has been in a state of disarray. EU countries’ collective position that the PRC is a strategic competitor and a strategic rival did not halt the conclusion of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the PRC in December 2020. And the EU’s limited sanctions on four Chinese officials involved in running internment camps in Xinjiang was not accompanied by any substantive actions on Hong Kong. A rethink on the investment agreement only came following the PRC’s retaliatory sanctions on the ambassadors to the EU’s Political and Security Committee, European parliamentarians, academics and think tanks following the EU’s Xinjiang sanctions. 

Stimulating Europe’s foreign policy

While EU countries embark on an overdue re-assessment of their stance on the PRC, the UK has already demonstrated a credible approach. This European vanguard role is not driven by a new grand vision for the UK’s role in Europe, but is the product of the greater diplomatic bandwidth which had previously been occupied by the prolonged Brexit process. This has been combined with a willingness to provide leadership on foreign policy issues where collective European action (especially through the EU) has been insipid. Offering cogency in European’s foreign policy through exemplifying alternative policy approaches looks increasingly to be a major diplomatic role for the UK.

Prof. Richard Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

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