On June the 23rd 2016, the British public went to the polls to have their say on whether they wished the United Kingdom to remain part of the European Union or whether it should leave. In an outcome that shocked many observers, analysts, members of the public and politicians, 51.9% of the voters chose to leave the EU.
What was seen as a surprise for many analysts was, in fact, in long time making. Euroscepticism has been part of the British political and social landscape since before the UK joined what was then the European Communities. Even after joining the union, its status as an “awkward partner” persisted amidst an air or growing mutual suspicion. Amidst rising immigration levels, stagnating incomes in many parts of the UK, struggling infrastructure and concerns about the overreach of the EU, Euroscepticism became a powerful enough force to result in a major shift in Britain’s future relations.
This paper seeks to answer how the British foreign policy will look like in the post-Brexit era. As the British Government has been tight-lipped on its future policy decisions, this paper instead looks at historic relations, pre-existing trends and future indicators in order to determine a trajectory for British foreign policy.
The conclusion reached by this paper is that the British foreign policy in the post-Brexit era will be a lot more inward looking as the British Government mobilises to meet internal challenges associated with Brexit. The next two years, in particular, will see the British Government putting all its energies into getting a positive outcome from its negotiations with the EU and retaining as many rights as possible with regards to trade, immigration and border control. As a result, it will deprioritise relations that are not of immediate political or economic benefits to the UK and are not grounded in a historic foundation that can be built upon quickly.
The UK will try to build relations with the United States whose President Donald Trump has supported Brexit. But the two countries have vastly-divergent notions of what they want out of Brexit and the world. Similarly, they have significantly divergent threat perceptions regarding China and Russia and this will constrain what their relationship is capable of, forcing the UK to balance between different partners while retaining the “special relationship” with the US.
The UK’s economic partnerships with the Gulf will expand. UK has historic and growing economic links with the Gulf and these links have remained stable and predictable over the decades. As these are qualities that the UK could use in the post-Brexit era, partnerships with the Gulf will remain.
Its relations with a number of countries, such as Turkey and Iraq, are mired in rapid shifts and contradictions and it will be difficult to determine how they progress. In recognising the UK’s interests and preferred outcomes, these countries can engineer a foreign policy that is more favourable to them.
Meanwhile, a number of issues remain unknown and could have significant impacts on post-Brexit foreign policy of the UK.
Internally, the British Government will be forced to deal with the independence calls within its own body, with regards to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, ensuring that they remain part of the wider UK. Should the independence of these parts take place, Westminster, now controlling England alone, will find itself constrained severely in economic and political terms.
Externally, Eurosceptic and anti-establishment parties and movements across the EU will continue to make waves. Although their candidates have been defeated in Netherlands and Austria and will likely be defeated in Germany, the popularity they gained should not be underestimated. They still remain potent in France and Italy where elections near and the outcomes of these elections will have a significant impact on how the EU behaves. While a weaker EU will provide short-term benefits to the UK, sustained instability and the spill-over of the instability will cause detriments to the UK in the medium-to-long term.
Regardless of the outcome, Brexit and its aftermath will take British foreign policy into uncharted territories.