Britain’s exit from the EU will reduce the country’s influence on the global stage, diplomats have said in a pre-referendum Embassy BREXIT Poll.
Envoys reacted with shock and disappointment at the result, as almost two thirds (63%) of survey respondents had predicted that Britain would opt to remain in the EU, albeit by a very narrow margin (52% to 48%).
Loss of global influence
In the survey diplomats were asked what impact an exit from the EU would have on Britain’s influence on the global stage as well as its bilateral relations with both EU and non-EU countries.
Diplomats from all regions overwhelmingly agreed that Britain would lose global influence if no longer a member of the EU. As one High Commissioner put it: “There is no British Empire anymore. Leaving will definitely weaken the UK’s status and credibility on a global level.”
A senior British diplomat told Embassy that a vote to leave the EU could trigger a second Scottish independence referendum and the break-up of the Union. A diminished union may even lead to calls for Britain to lose its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
In terms of combating global threats, such as climate change or terrorism, envoys from all regions felt the UK, working in partnership with the EU, was “very important”.
When it comes to security, EU unity was considered to be very important to EU respondents. Britain’s influence and knowledge in persuading the EU to act on security issues in Africa was also seen as “quite” or “very important” for African countries.
But for a few dissenting countries, particularly those with long historic ties to the UK, the UK’s membership of the EU could be a “hindrance” to their bilateral security cooperation, said one Ambassador. “The UK is attached to this big organisation so it does not have the flexibility to act fast. Sometimes it would be more effective acting on its own.”
On development, Africans and EU neighbouring countries were most concerned that without Britain’s contribution to the EU aid budget, development assistance would be reduced. EU partners also indicated that Britain was important to the EU’s overall development agenda.
Trade and investment
When it comes to trade, the BREXIT vote will have a “very negative” impact on Britain and EU trading relations, particularly over the short term.
For those countries with free trade agreements with the EU also predict a negative impact on their trading relations until new deals can be struck.
For countries in Latin America and the Commonwealth, the loss of a UK voice in EU trade negotiations will be most keenly felt. As one Latin American Ambassador put it: “We rely on the UK to be a liberalising force within the EU, to counter some of the protectionist sentiments of other EU members.”
A diplomat from the Pacific region echoed these sentiments: “The UK is a staunch ally of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries in the EU-ACP trade / aid negotiations.”
Asian and African respondents expected little or no impact on their bilateral trading relations following Britain’s vote to leave.
The impact the BREXIT vote will have on investment in Britain is harder to determine. Diplomats from the EU, North America and East Asia said British membership of the single market was a “very influential” factor when thinking about investing in the UK as a gateway to the EU market.
But for other regions it was not seen as a major consideration, according to the Embassy poll. The more important consideration, especially over the medium to long term, was the UK’s economic performance. “Investment is like water, it will take the path of least resistance. The bigger consideration is the strength of the UK economy,” said one respondent.
Movement of people
Britain’s decision to leave the EU will be keenly felt when it comes to movement of people. For EU members, ‘People-to-people’ ties – the movement of workers or students – were “greatly enhanced” by Britain’s membership. There is now a lot of uncertainty status of EU migrant workers in the UK or the status of EU students at UK universities.
Conversely, for countries in Africa and Latin America, the UK’s membership of the EU has had a “restrictive” effect on the movement of people to Britain, because the UK has had to clamp down on non-EU migration to compensate for the influx of EU migrants. However, diplomats doubt that Britain’s decision to leave the EU will relieve pressure on non-EU migration into Britain.
Despite the disappointment, diplomats felt it was important to accept the decision of the British public and “move forward,” tweeted the High Commissioner for Cyprus. “The EU will do soul searching and continue.”
Another European Ambassador said: “Europe will also have to change. The sentiments stirred up in Britain’s referendum debate have had resonance across Europe.”