Our country has been seriously damaged by the narrow result of the 2016 referendum. The bitter Brexit division and political impasse of the last three years have not only prevented proper attention to pressing domestic issues like the social care crisis. It has also damaged the standing and influence of the disunited United Kingdom on the global stage.
Whatever the final outcome of this tragedy – leaving the EU with or without a deal, or remaining a member state of the European Union through revocation and a People’s Vote – the UK’s reputation has taken a hit. Even if there is a withdrawal deal, Brexit and its aftermath will shape the international standing and role of our country for decades to come.
The current institutional structures of global governance, including the United Nations (UN), were established by the allied powers in the aftermath of the Second World War. The European Coal and Steel Community was a peace project designed to ensure France and Germany never went to war again. It evolved into the European Community of six, which then became nine, and is now the European Union (EU) of 28. The 500-million-strong bloc is still a model of democratic governance, peaceful resolution of disputes and the rule of law. But the EU now faces the twin threats of Brexit and assertive nationalist populism – both from far right groups within and from the malign Putin regime in Russia without.
The rise of new economic powers in Asia, particularly China, is leading to a shift in the balance of global power. So far, the Chinese government has not challenged the international rules-based system. Indeed, it has seen the benefits of being a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). But in time there will be increasing pressure on European states – including the UK – to accept reforms to global institutions, not least the IMF and the UN, that would better reflect the global distribution of power in the 21st century.
As one of the five permanent UNSC members, the UK wields significant influence in global affairs. Within the UN system, Britain already works extremely closely with France: while the UK has not used its veto alone since 1972, Britain and France together have had the weight to prevent UNSC resolutions that are not in European interests.
Modern UK foreign policy goals have rarely been at odds with those of the rest of the EU and this has allowed Britain’s international influence and representation to be amplified. UK politicians took the lead in trying to stop the Balkan wars and in post war reconstruction. Paddy Ashdown, was High Representative in Bosnia. William Hague played a leading role in a common EU sanctions response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Cathy Ashton was EU lead negotiator with Iran and was also central to the deal between Kosovo and Serbia as High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.
EU membership helped the UK to achieve more in its foreign policy than it could have done alone. Post-referendum internal government divisions have increased UK disengagement and if we leave the EU, it will lead to a significant further loss of influence. It would also increase the importance of France to its European partners as the only EU state which is also a permanent UNSC member. Outside the EU, pressure to give up our permanent UNSC seat and veto would rise. We would no longer be able to rely on EU member state solidarity in other UN matters.
Natural disasters, climate change, and repressive regimes, civil wars and conflicts have all caused huge movements of displaced people globally in recent years, from countries including Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Sri Lanka. This movement of people will increase as we experience more extreme climate events.
Conflicts and proxy wars in the Islamic world, and the violence and challenge presented by Da’esh and other groups, could last decades. The disastrous consequences of our failure to intervene to stop the civil war in Syria has led to 500,000 deaths, most killed by the Assad regime, and 11 million displaced people. There is no end in sight to the civil war in Yemen, or to the Palestine/Israel conflict which will continue to be used by Islamist radicals to inflame passions worldwide.
The nationalist autocratic Putin regime seeks to reverse Russian loss of power and influence, whether by political and military support for Assad in Syria, by overt use of military annexation of territory in Georgia, and Ukraine; by asymmetric warfare against the Baltic states; by use of its RT propaganda channel; and by financing anti-EU populist parties.
Growing assertiveness by Communist China has been accompanied by a heightened tension over unresolved territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and other states, and concern about the future of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
There is also uncertainty about the long term commitment and behaviour of the US, our most powerful ally and NATO partner. A further term for the unpredictable nationalist Trump Presidency would be a major challenge for the future of the rules-based international order, particularly for NATO and Europe. Even a Democrat presidency could be constrained by the growing mood of protectionism and isolationism in Congress.
The UK has an interest in defending global institutions and in working co-operatively with other likeminded countries in search of global solutions to these challenges. This is no time to leave the EU. On the contrary the UK should increase our diplomatic efforts and resources and engagement with our partners and neighbours to achieve our common goals.