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Brexit need not mean turning away from Europe

EU Council staff members remove the United Kingdom's flag from the European Council building in Brussels - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Former Tory minister and Boris Johnson critic ALISTAIR BURT presents a pro-European, Conservative vision for post-Brexit Britain.

During the 2016 referendum, I made the case that UK’s interests – both foreign and domestic – were best served by remaining a member of the EU. However, being a pragmatist and a democrat are core conservative values and nothing is to be gained by living in the divisions of past. The reality is that the United Kingdom has left the European Union and it is in our collective interest that ‘Global Britain’ succeeds. How the relationship with the EU moves beyond the poisoned atmosphere of Brexit matters to all of us who value it, and just as much to those who don’t.

The change in the UK’s status –from an EU member state to a third country outside of both the single market and customs union – will obviously become more pronounced once the transition period ends on December 31, 2020. However, at this stage, because negotiations have focused on the economy, we do not yet have a clear picture about how the UK will seek to enhance its role beyond promoting global trade, especially in its key foreign and defence interests post-Brexit. Nor do we know to what extent it will remain constructively engaged in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and participate in broader European security both internal and external and defence matters in which it has been so actively engaged in shaping for the last 47 years.

It is for this reason that, during the summer, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) established a Foreign Affairs Policy Group, which includes experts in diplomacy, business and politics. Our first publication – Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit – was launched recently during a webinar with Lord Hague, CGE Chair Sir David Lidington, Tom Tugendhat MP and Neale Richmond TD.

The paper is a Conservative contribution to the ongoing discussions about the UK’s role in an ever changing and challenging world, where resources will be stretched, and priorities must inevitably be chosen. The paper covers the EU; the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and East and South Asia. It offers an overview of each region, the UK’s involvement and highlights potential future opportunities and dangers. Crucially, it offers practical and positive suggestions to help ‘Global Britain’ succeed, and has no doubt that a close relationship with our EU partners in foreign affairs remains in our best interests.

The paper makes clear that many of the challenges experienced as an EU member state – from potential migration crises, to the impact of Covid-19 and possible future pandemics, to the common challenge of climate change and the impact these will have on our economies and way of life – will still need discussion with our international allies and in particular our EU neighbours. It is important also to remember who our closest friends in the world are and with whom we share common culture, history and geographical proximity.

In the European sphere, the UK cannot be considered as simply ‘another third country’ by the EU given our security surplus and permanent Security Council status. We should seek to establish structured cooperation on CFSP and CSDP matters. The paper suggests developing new structures or reinventing older ones – like the Western European Union (WEU) – to help formalise foreign policy, defence and security dialogue between the EU and UK. It also considers the inclusion of certain non-EU Nato states to develop wider European cooperation.

In global affairs, UK and EU interests are often aligned. UK values have influenced Europe and vice versa, so in many ways these are intertwined in facing growing challenges. Our foreign policies will rarely be contradictory but more often mutually reinforcing. To make a success of ‘Global Britain’, we can also be ‘European Britain’. Indeed, these two concepts are perhaps best considered two sides of the same coin.

We can achieve far more on the world stage by working collaboratively, as an equal partner, with our European allies – ‘European Britain’. At the same time, we must seize new opportunities, think innovatively and engage in parts of the world previously overlooked – ‘Global Britain’. Importantly our global influence is strengthened by our role as a partner to the EU.

These two concepts are perhaps most effectively demonstrated when we consider our relationship with the USA and a section in the paper considers the potential foreign policy implications of Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency and what it could mean for the UK.

Biden has a long history of foreign affairs involvement, he is committed multilateralist and firmly believes in collective action. A UK working closely with its European allies will be a more valued partner to Washington. If we were to turn our back on Europe, the UK risks being marginalised and losing its unique and historic role as a bridge between the US and Europe.

Immediate opportunities now exist to strengthen the UK-US relationship, particularly in area of climate change. Biden has committed to re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement on the first day of his presidency and the UK is hosting COP26 next year. A good trade deal is obviously in both our best interests as a firm foundation to our new relationship. It may not be without its concessions on both sides, but this might be best for the recovery of our economies post Brexit – some ‘give’ now on both sides might be politic.

The theme of multilateral co-operation, especially with our European allies, reoccurs throughout the paper, regardless of what geographical region is being discussed, and we welcome the fact that the US is likely to re-engage and encourage such efforts. For example, given that peace and prosperity on the African continent is in the interests of the whole of Europe (including the UK and the EU), it is essential that the UK and EU continue to work closely together on both the formal and informal level.

The same is true for the Middle East and North Africa, a region of which I have first-hand experience from my time as minister of state for the Middle East at the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The MENA chapter highlights how working with our European partners will often lead to more effective outcomes. The working alliance in particular with Berlin and Paris will remain crucial in the MENA region. We should continue to work with partners who share our values to promote good governance, human rights, economic reform, ending corruption, and consent in government as the bases of stability. We should work especially with states promoting religious tolerance, which has a resonance unappreciated in a largely secular UK and Europe. The absence of tolerance, and oppression of minorities, is one of the key recruiters for conflict.

Strategic cooperation with the EU on shared security and foreign policy interests will be integral part of making ‘Global Britain’ a success. Our global influence is strengthened – in Washington and throughout the world – by our engagement with Europe. It is my belief that the practical and innovative suggestions presented in the paper will help the UK remain a major player in international affairs. Opponents of our values, who may have had their hopes raised by the divisions of Brexit, must now have such hopes dashed as we move forward together.

Alistair Burt, a former minister of state at  the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, was a Conservative MP from 2001 until 2019. He had the party whip removed in September 2019 for voting against the government on Brexit and stood down at the following election, citing “fundamental, and unresolvable disagreement” over the policy. He is now chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe’s Foreign Affairs Policy Group

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