After withdrawing from the EU, the Conservative government is striving to redefine the UK’s geopolitical role on the world stage. Whilst a nostalgic longing for the recapture of British imperial influence defines these efforts, the evolving balance in global politics diminishes Britain’s geopolitical influence to that of a secondary global power.
Brexit, rather than signalling the end of the UK’s association with Europe, marks the emergence of a new relationship with the continent. Despite Brexiteers’ ambitions for newfound economic freedom and prosperity, through geographical proximity there will be an economic necessity to retain a close relationship with the EU. To exemplify this, 47% of Britain’s international trade is with the EU. Moreover, there are mutual geopolitical objectives – working against Russian security threats, Chinese economic influence, and looking for migration control.
However, issues with the UK-EU future relationship are considerable. Firstly, although Germany, in light of its own geopolitical and economic considerations, would prefer a close military and economic relationship with the UK, France, in line with historical precedent, is much more hostile to the fulfilment of British interests, viewing them as largely synonymous to American interests. Furthermore, highlighted by disputes over vaccine distribution, cooperation between the UK and EU in their pandemic management has been inadequate, while the issue of the Irish border will likely remain a point of contention.
Meanwhile, it is conceivable that London will pursue a closer relationship with the new Biden administration in the US instead. America continues to be an obvious ally due to language, culture, and trade relationships, while the so-called ‘special relationship’ has historically had a strong militarian component, with the two nations being the highest contributors to NATO. In light of emerging global threats, primarily China, this alliance may only be enhanced. It should be simultaneously noted, however, that the UK is unequivocally the junior partner in this relationship, and the US could turn to the EU as a more powerful ally.
Considering these changing relationships, is the notion of a new post-Brexit global Britain realistically possibility, or naïve fantasy? The UK remains an attractive trade partner, given London’s presence as the world second largest financial centre as the UK’s position as the world’s sixth largest economy, while Brexit does provide Britain with the opportunity to develop more independent connections on the global scale. However, the benefit is offset by the economic effects of leaving the EU. More importantly, the long-term context of Britain’s declining geopolitical influence has to be contemplated. While London retains a significant degree of soft power, possesses effective armed forces and command a nuclear arsenal, its geopolitical influence and economic weight is evidently eclipsed by the likes of the US, EU and China.
By the UK government’s own admission, outlined in their recent security, defence, development and foreign policy review, ‘Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK’. London will view the EU, and potentially Turkey, as geopolitical allies against this threat. Yet this alliance is complicated by the EU reliance on Russia to meet its energy requirements. Approximately 40% of the EU gas imports come from Russia, a security threat particularly problematic for Germany. If the EU is overly hostile to Russia, they can simply turn off the gas. The Kremlin does not have the same influence over the UK. As such, anti-Russian rhetoric and political action is much more acute in the UK than the EU. In consideration to the Russian threat, and others, Johnson announced an increase in defence spending by £24 billion, and an expansion of the UK’s nuclear warheads to 260.
Economically speaking, the report also depicted China as ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’. China poses the greatest economic contest to British aspirations in Asia, while hostilities between the two counties have intensified over the situation in Hong Kong. In an attempt to mitigate this issue, the UK government is actively pursuing closer ties with allies in the Asia-Pacific region, namely India and Japan.
Despite these geopolitical confrontations, the greatest threat to Britain’s role on the global stage arises from the possibility of internal collapse. The prospects of Irish unification and Scottish independence severely threaten the UK existence as a global power. Not only could the UK lose its permanent position on the UN Security Council, but amidst a notable decline in international influence, it could cease to be a valuable ally or a credible threat.
In the wake of a declining British Empire, the decision to join the European Economic Community (the predecessor to the EU) in 1973 was in aspiration to regain Britain economic prowess and global significance. It is the same considerations that inspire the UK’s desire to leave the EU. Yet the restoration of British global influence is unrealistic. While it can retain its position as a moderately influential power, assuming it retains internal stability, this will be trumped by the influence of existing and emerging superpowers. While global economic opportunities are present, the UK will be required to retain a close economic relationship with the EU. Fundamentally, as a geopolitical force of secondary influence, London will likely find itself in an awkward position between the interests of Washington and Brussels, in light of increasing opposition in a volatile and transformative global order.
Written by Jacob Starr