Global Britain – a slogan without substance?

Theresa May delivers her landmark speech in which she outlined her vision of a post-Brexit "Global Britain". [Number10/Flickr]

‘Global Britain’ has been one of the most popular slogans used by UK ministers, led by Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. What it actually means in practice is far from clear.

Ever since the British voted for Brexit in June 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May and her team have been anxious to stress that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union doesn’t mean it will isolate itself from world affairs.

A report published by UK MPs on Monday (12 March), suggests that the ‘Global Britain’ slogan is yet to become more than a PR-exercise.

The slogan “does not amount to a strategy”, said the House of Commons cross-party Foreign Affairs committee.

“For Global Britain to be more than a worthy aspiration, the slogan must be backed by substance,” it added.

The MPs report states that “no minister during our inquiry was able to give the Committee a definitive explanation of ‘Global Britain’”.

As its ministers are anxious to emphasise, the UK is not without influence. Optimists think that it should be perfectly possible for London to leverage its status as a nuclear-armed member of the United Nations Security Council, the second-biggest military spender in NATO, a major humanitarian aid donor, and a member of the G7 and the G20.

Brexit fear and loathing in development world

Talk to a development professional and Brexit looms large. It was no surprise, therefore, that Brexit dominated much of BOND’s annual conference in London in late February, a two-day gathering of hundreds of NGO wonks from Europe’s development sector.

“It remains unclear what the Government believes the UK should do with these resources and assets in the post-Brexit environment, and how the UK should exercise leadership on the most urgent and complex issues facing the international system,” warns the committee.

It adds that UK ministers should define how rule of law, cultural influence and military interests should be balanced against the trade aspects of Global Britain, and set out which regions and countries it will prioritise.

The committee has already called for the UK to beef up its diplomatic presence in European capitals, realising that London will become far more reliant on its diplomats once it has no representation in the EU institutions.

The impression given by UK ministers is that, in terms of substance, they don’t want much to change.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February, Theresa May called for a separate defence and security treaty with the EU, and assured delegates that “the UK is just as committed to Europe’s security in the future as we have been in the past”.

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Britain wants to agree a defence and security treaty with the EU before its leaves the bloc in March 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday (17 February).

Details on what this treaty would look like, from the UK side, has been thin on the ground so far. It is likely to cover security and Justice and Home Affairs policies, including UK involvement in Europol, which coordinates police intelligence across the EU, and the European Arrest Warrant.

“The French are very committed to the idea of a defence and security treaty, there’s a lot that we can do together,” Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs committee, told EURACTIV, following a series of meetings with French government ministers and officials in Paris last Friday (9 March).

They are “as committed as ever to a bilateral security relationship”, he added.

The UK government appears to be keen to remain part of the European defence infrastructure. Ministers are likely to want to remain part of the European Defence Fund, and the UK is participating in a trial of the EU’s Coordinated Annual Review of Defence (CARD) aimed at coordinating defence budgets across the EU.

Government officials have also indicated that the British will seek to remain in CARD, as well as the European Defence Agency, EU Battlegroups and possibly contribute to the Permanent Structural Co-operation (PESCO) military integration project set up by 25 EU member states last December.

So are foreign affairs and security among the few areas where Brexit will leave little mark?

“That’s the hope,” Sophia Besch, of the Centre for European Reform told EURACTIV. “There’s been quite a big effort from both sides not to have anything change.”

“The hope (from the EU) is for the UK to continue providing capability and expertise. The EU also expects that the UK accepts the legal restrictions that result from being a third country, so it remains to be seen how special this special partnership can be,” she added.