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The writer is director of The UK in a Changing Europe
The Aukus debacle reminds us that there is little place for sentimentality in international politics. This is potentially good news for the UK. Whatever others might think of Brexit, they will work with London if it is in their interests. Making a success of “Global Britain” will hinge on such partnerships but it will require some difficult choices.
The Australian submarine deal is a clear example of how Britain’s new alliances can undermine diplomatic relations in Europe. For the moment, the political imperatives of Brexit — privileging co-operation with the anglosphere — is trumping the need to work closely with its neighbours.
Yet it is hard to see how any rational Global Britain strategy can avoid Europe. And while much can be achieved bilaterally, meaningful co-operation — particularly in areas of EU competence such as sanctions — cannot be built without significant engagement with Brussels.
Our recent report underlines the range of attitudes that exist towards the UK. Unnerved by what it views as an irresponsible approach to Brexit, Berlin fears the UK might use their bilateral relationship to divide the EU. Hence Germany’s insistence that EU membership remains a “key reference point” and that it “will ensure the highest possible level of transparency” with member states.
The US is always keen to work with partners that share its interests. However, sensitivities over Northern Ireland will impinge on the UK’s freedom of manoeuvre over the province’s post-Brexit trade arrangements. More significantly, the UK has lost its ability to act as a bridge between the US and the EU.
New opportunities have opened elsewhere. Brazil has long fretted about what it sees as the EU’s protectionist tendencies. Brexit raises the possibility of more far-reaching agreements with London in areas such as investment and trade facilitation.
What the UK has lost is the heft that comes with participation in a continental-scale organisation. Neither the US nor China seems to take “Global Britain” seriously. American policymakers simply assume UK interests and actions will be aligned with their own. Chinese commentators scoff at the idea that the UK has the wherewithal to turn its anti-China rhetoric into meaningful action.
To re-establish itself, London will need new partners. Japan, for one, has welcomed the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt, seeing a potential ally against Chinese expansionist ambitions. Just this week, Tokyo called on European states to do more to deter Chinese aggression in the region. Aukus conceivably offers some reassurance in this regard.
London has so far avoided choosing between its desire for economic engagement with China and the need to protect UK interests and values. Prospective partners will expect greater clarity. Like Japan, India sees opportunities in the Indo-Pacific tilt, but is unsure about the degree to which London views Beijing as a threat.
Choices are necessary closer to home too. Geography alone means the UK shares strategic interests with its neighbours. The recent Integrated Review made clear that the Euro-Atlantic area is critical to the UK’s security and prosperity. Italy is keen to work with London given shared interests in countering the influence of China and Russia. For France, Global Britain offered genuine cause for optimism, providing Paris with the choice of co-operation on security within the EU — unencumbered by British opposition — or bilaterally with the UK in areas where the EU cannot deliver. That, of course, was pre-Aukus.
But is the UK willing to take the political steps necessary to realise the potential in these relationships? Aukus marks one of the first practical illustrations of what Global Britain means in practice. Whether it is able to convince other countries of its reliability as a partner — not least those closest to home — will determine its success.