Brexit’s trifling impact on EU external affairs

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Ragnar Weilandt
Ragnar Weilandt

Ragnar Weilandt is Doctoral researcher at the University of Warwick and the Université libre de Bruxelles

With Britain leaving, the European Union is set to lose one of its only two member states that have global strategic ambition, relevant armed forces, a nuclear deterrent and a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, Brexit deprives the EU of a driver of key foreign policies such as enlargement, trade liberalisation and the fight against climate change. Yet Brexit also rids the EU of a member that routinely obstructs its attempts to create and strengthen common institutions or to speak with one voice on the world stage.

Despite these fundamental and contradictory roles, Brexit may not have a major impact on the EU’s external affairs or Common Security and Defence Policy. For starters, both Britain and France – their 1998 Saint-Malo Declaration having kick-started EU defence – long since lost their interest in the CSDP. Most current missions are rather unambitious, and as British contributions in terms of personnel and equipment have been marginal, the impacts of Brexit may not be noticed at all.

Trade liberalisation and climate action have become second nature to the Union with or without British influence

Other foreign policy tools are likely to be similarly unaffected. Enlargement, arguably the EU’s strongest means of influence beyond its borders, is on hold for the foreseeable future. With Britain having transformed from an enthusiastic supporter to a hostile opponent of enlarging the EU in recent years, a victory for ‘Remain’ would not have made a difference. Meanwhile, trade liberalisation and climate action have become second nature to the Union with or without British influence. Whether or not free trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are eventually concluded would in any case have depended more on public discontent in Germany or France than on the British government’s stance.

As for Britain’s obstructions, Brexit is also unlikely to enable, let alone entail, a rapid leap towards a more integrated and substantial EU foreign policy. It is true that the UK was a stumbling block for EU foreign policy. Having failed to prevent the European External Action Service (EEAS) emerging in its current form, the UK engaged in political guerrilla warfare against what it saw as ‘competence creep’. On various occasions, British ambassadors blocked EEAS officials from speaking at international organisations and from issuing joint statements on behalf of the EU. The UK government even challenged the Commission’s exclusive authority over trade negotiations, despite being completely in line with its approach to international trade. But the view that foreign policy should remain the prerogative of member states is by no means constrained to London. The eurosceptic climate across much of continental Europe would make any major step towards a more integrated EU foreign policy a definite surprise.

The UK government even challenged the Commission’s exclusive authority over trade negotiations, despite being completely in line with its approach

Even without changes to the institutions and policy preferences of EU external action, we can expect the British decision to affect both the UK’s and the EU’s global standing. The UK will lose credibility, as the Brexit vote is seen by much of the Western world’s foreign and security policy establishment as unwise, even irresponsible. Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary is hardly a step towards repairing Britain’s damaged reputation.

The EU’s international repute has already suffered as a result of its inadequate reactions to the eurozone crisis and the refugee situation. Brexit will now further hurt the EU’s soft power, which is its vital source of international influence. That the EU has ceased to be sufficiently attractive even for its own members undermines its ability to promote its model of integration, as well as its norms and values, to states worldwide.

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