Uncertainty clouds UK’s post-Brexit global plans

Uncertainty clouds UK’s post-Brexit global plans

Britain's Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt arrives to speak about "Britain's Role in a Post-Brexit World" at the Fullerton Lecture in Singapore January 2, 2019. (Reuters)


UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech in Singapore on Wednesday outlining how Brexit Britain will “strengthen its links” with the Asia-Pacific region and other key areas of the globe, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. His visit underlines the emphasis London is putting on consolidating ties with key non-European nations, both emerging markets and industrialized economies, with the UK’s departure from the EU rapidly approaching.
Hunt’s vision is shared by Prime Minister Theresa May, who — should she still be in power — has decided to make her first post-Brexit trade mission to Asia this spring. Both believe the UK needs to build ties with “the most dynamic economies of the world,” from Asia-Pacific to the Middle East and the Americas.
In his speech, Hunt stressed that Britain will remain a “global power” post-Brexit, as the fifth largest economy in the world, with the second biggest NATO military budget, and one of the globe’s two biggest financial centers. As big as the UK’s political and security role will remain, both Hunt and May are putting emphasis on economic relations. 
May herself has asserted that she wants to rediscover the UK’s heritage as “a great global trading nation.” This is not just with Asia-Pacific nations such as Singapore, China, India and Australia, but also the GCC states, Canada and the US. 

UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox has confirmed he is already discussing, informally, new post-Brexit UK trade deals with at least a dozen countries. And he has even hinted that London might try to seek membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is the new 11-member trade and investment deal among Asia-Pacific and Americas countries.

A central challenge for Fox with these potential bilateral and multilateral trade deals is that no agreements can be formally negotiated, let alone finalized, before the UK actually leaves the EU. Thus, while there has been much fanfare over a potential new UK-US trade deal, for instance, any such agreement could probably not be secured, at the earliest, until the end of Donald Trump’s current four-year term, when the administration will probably have lost much traction in Congress, which would need to approve any deal. 

It is likely that many national leaders, including in Germany, France and Eastern Europe, will particularly favor a continued strong working relationship, given the growing array of external security challenges facing the union. 

Andrew Hammond

Outside of trade, Hunt made clear in his speech that — post-Brexit — the UK will continue to play a major role in international security. While London will play a genuinely global role through continued membership of forums such as the UN Security Council, its renewed commitment to Europe will also be very important going forward.

May has sought to emphasize that, while the UK is departing the EU, it is not leaving Europe. Instead, she has stressed her desire to continue, if not intensify, cooperation with EU partners in areas including crime, counter-terrorism and foreign affairs.

To this end, the prime minister wants the UK’s future relationship with the EU to include practical law enforcement partnership working arrangements, plus those for sharing intelligence, given the apparently growing threat of terrorism across the continent. She has also highlighted that she wants close liaison with EU allies on foreign and defense policies to keep the continent secure, including the prospect of UK military personnel remaining for some time in Eastern Europe, given the perceived threat from an emboldened Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

With the UK government intent on leaving the European Single Market, this potentially extensive web of security and defense relationships would be strongest if molded upon the type of “bold, ambitious free trade agreement with the EU,” with “the freest possible trade on goods and services,” that May set out as one of her key Brexit negotiating objectives. In the prime minister’s own words, this would allow for “tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade that is as frictionless as possible,” while leaving the Common Commercial Policy and no longer being tied to the Common Customs Tariff, thus permitting the UK to pursue its own trade agreements. 

At this stage, the EU has not yet formally commented in great detail on post-Brexit security and foreign policy cooperation with the UK. However, it is likely that many national leaders, including in Germany, France and Eastern Europe, will particularly favor a continued strong working relationship, given the growing array of external security challenges facing the union. 

Indeed, it is reported that at least one key EU country, Germany, will sign a new post-Brexit bilateral defense cooperation deal in areas including maritime patrols and cyber security. Both May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are not just agreed on the need to show a common front in Eastern Europe, but also internationally too in the campaign against Daesh terrorism in the Middle East, where Germany is supplying reconnaissance aircraft alongside the bombing missions of the UK’s Royal Air Force.

Taken overall, Brexit offers a new opportunity for the UK to reinvent its world role, especially in the context of trade relations. However, big uncertainty remains over this agenda, and it will not be clear until the 2020s exactly how successful it proves to be, given that no new trade deals can be agreed until after the nation leaves the EU. 

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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