As EU flags are lowered at British embassies abroad, we asked diplomats in London how Brexit would affect Britain’s diplomatic ties and global influence. Here’s what they said
Britain is likely to lose influence on the world stage and conducting diplomacy with the UK will be “a bit more complicated” after it departs the European Union, according to London’s diplomats.
In the Embassy Brexit Survey, London’s envoys were asked how Brexit would affect Britain’s global clout on a scale of one to five, where 1 denoted a significant loss of influence and 5, a significant gain. The average result was 2.4, meaning in their opinion, the UK is likely to wield less weight on the world stage in future.
Invited to comment, one diplomat responded: “At least in the mid-term period it will be a big challenge for the UK to keep its global position, as it is. In the long run it may benefit, but it is also disputable.”
Similarly, asked whether it would be harder or easier to conduct diplomacy after Britain’s departure, the average response of the respondents was 2.75, so very little change apart from “more bureaucracy,” commented one diplomat.
However, results diverge when separating out European responses from envoys representing non-EU nations. On the whole, EU diplomats (with very few exceptions) are more pessimistic, predicting Britain acting alone on the world stage will lose a fair bit of influence, notably at international fora where it will no longer have the backing of 27 other nations.
“It will be one country, whereas before it was one of 28,” commented an EU diplomat.
Another pointed out that Britain will be at a disadvantage when negotiating with large countries or blocks: “Small nations competing with large blocks always lose influence.”
Analysing responses from the rest of the world, envoys have mixed views. Some are positive and believe that Britain “outside the mandate and control of Brussels” as one Pacific diplomat put it, may gain influence. Others predicted Britain would be “great again,” as one diplomat from the Middle East commented, and an Asian diplomat said “Britain will have its own voice, not the EU voice.” Diplomats from the Commonwealth were also cautiously optimistic: “Most countries of the Commonwealth should be waiting to strengthen their commercial ties with the UK.”
Others are less sanguine, particularly on Britain’s relative strength in trade negotiations. “The UK is a much smaller market on its own than as part of the EU, where it wielded much influence,” said one diplomat from North America. Some diplomats also think that the constitutional debates brought about by Brexit will force it to be more inward-looking for a time: “There will be lot of internal problems inside UK, even problems of scission with Scotland and Northern Ireland,” said one African diplomat.
Others are slightly sceptical about the ‘Global Britain’ hype: “I believe the leaders of Britain think they will gain more influence but I am not of this opinion. United we stand, divided one will fall,” said a Caribbean diplomat.
Asked whether conducting diplomacy after Brexit would become easier or harder, most EU envoys said making decisions would become more convoluted and technical.
“A number of current channels of communication will have to be modified,” said one diplomat. Another added: “Not having the UK at the decision-making table will introduce another layer of negotiation on technical matters.”
One EU diplomat worried about “a climate of mistrust” while another predicted a battle of wills, where the UK would “try to find common ground with individual countries” while these countries would “make efforts to stick to the factor of unity of the EU”.
Meanwhile diplomats from non-EU countries predicted very little change in how they managed relations with Britain, although some felt dealing directly with the UK rather than through the prism of Brussels might make diplomacy marginally easier, especially on trade matters.
“I believe UK will be able to deal in economic matters with much more freedom than now under EU rules,” said one Latin American diplomat.
The pro-Brexit rhetoric is it will open up more opportunities to do business with Britain, while those against leaving the EU believe Brexit will throw up barriers. How do diplomats feel?
EU diplomats feel Brexit will result in more challenges than opportunities, but the degree will depend on the shape of future arrangements. “There will be more bureaucracy and antagonism,” said one, while another was concerned about technical barriers to trade: “There are sectors such as agri-food, transportation which will have to face new operational conditions.”
Others also saw people-to-people ties diminishing, with the end of free movement. This is will affect student exchanges. “Brexit is going to impact student exchange procedures and make it less easy. The question of the participation of the UK to Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe is going to challenge the way we work together even though we have bilateral programmes,” said one EU attaché.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. One diplomat, while predicting challenges for their exports, was optimistic that Britain’s departure from the EU could trigger more inward investment to their country. This comment was mirrored by comments by non-EU envoys, whose companies are already invested in the UK but are now assessing whether future investments would be in the UK or the EU, depending on the outcome of the trade deal.
For non-EU diplomats, the poll showed that Brexit is likely to bring about more opportunities for their countries. “The UK focus will not only be on the EU,” said an African diplomat, a view echoed by a Latin American colleague who predicted “more economic opportunities”.
“Cultural ties with Commonwealth will become the base for stronger political and economic exchange,” responded a Commonwealth envoy.
But views are nuanced. An Asian diplomat pointed out that Europe, with its proximity to Britain, would still be the main focus as a generator of wealth and trade as opposed to markets further afield in the US or Asia.
In terms of people-to-people ties, ending free movement for EU citizens would not automatically translate into more immigration opportunities for non-EU countries, said one Asian diplomat: “Immigration, visas and permits will be more complex.”
The jury is also out for developing countries who received UK aid and preferential access to markets through EU channels. Will levels of aid and access be the same? “Now that the entities are separate it will pose some challenges,” cautioned a Caribbean diplomat.
With UK leaders promising a ‘Global Britain’ diplomats were asked in which areas Britain would be best placed to wield its global influence. A minority of envoys said Britain’s perceived loss of influence would disqualify it from take a leading role. However, the majority of envoys pointed out key areas where the UK could still make a difference, summarised below.
Climate change and the transition to a green economy were two related areas where diplomats felt Britain could take a leading role, through its innovative technologies in renewable energy and green finance. Britain would also be well placed to promote sustainable development in developing countries. The outcome of the COP26 talks in November would be a test of how much influence the UK could wield in this area.
The UK also has a role to play in promoting a rules-based international order in a variety of areas, notably rules-based free trade and the revival of the WTO. Britain’s influence will remain key in global security and defence, through NATO but more importantly, through its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Envoys urged the UK to use its veto powers at the UN wisely. “Britain should not just abandon some of problems happening in most areas of the world,” said one Commonwealth diplomat. A number of envoys said the UK with an independent foreign policy could be well placed to promote peace in the Middle East and help to de-escalate tensions with Iran. A diplomat from the Caribbean said the UK, through its leadership in the Commonwealth, should become the champion of small states.
Britain also had a role to play in promoting “Western values” and human rights in general, notably in protecting a free press, empowering women and combatting sexual violence in conflicts.
Puppet or interlocutor?
With the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the US, one EU diplomat called on the UK to “be an intermediary” between the US and the EU. Meanwhile an Asian diplomat said the UK should “contain hostile policies of the United States and to promote more independent policy of the UK in international affairs.”
One envoy said Britain’s influence would be measured by the independence of its foreign policy from the US: “UK diplomatic relations with other countries will depend on how much it is willing to become the puppet of the US.”
Financial services, Education, AI
Diplomats also pointed to a variety of areas where Britain has the expertise to make a real impact. Topping the list is financial services, particularly in global financial regulation (for instance taking a lead over the ‘tech tax’) as well as fin-tech. Britain could play an important role in education, especially English language and Higher Education. Its strengths in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cyber security qualified it to take a leading role in advancing international standards.
Asked whether diplomats were optimistic or pessimistic about their relations with the UK, EU diplomats were, on the whole, slightly pessimistic and bracing themselves for the negotiations to come, as one warned: “The battle for truth and honesty has just commenced.”
Another added: “A lot of time and effort will be needed to adapt to the new situation.”
However, on a bilateral level, many EU diplomats remain committed to keeping relations strong.
Non-EU countries do not foresee many changes in relations but some see Brexit opening up more opportunities. “Now we can deal with the UK as a country,” said a Middle Eastern diplomat.
One thing both EU or non-EU diplomats agreed on, was that the real hard work starts now, as one diplomat summed up: “We will need more diplomacy.”