LSE: Brexit will affect, but not determine, the EU’s roles in a changing world arena

05 March 2020

What effects might Brexit have on the EU’s capacity to play an effective role in the world arena, asks Michael Smith (University of Warwick)?

 The EU’s Global Strategy published in 2016 expressed this view of a ‘strategically autonomous’ Union, wielding at least some of the attributes of a ‘normal’ power to pursue a harder-edged role in the world arena.

A study of discourse and rhetoric, however, tells us little about how things might actually develop. As argued by my article in our special issue on post-Brexit EU policies, one way of exploring how discourses are converted into policy and action is to assess the roles conceived and played by the UK and the EU. In this way, it is possible to see the focus on ‘global Britain’ as a way of conceiving a new and more expansive global role, and to see the EU’s Global Strategy as expressing the aim of playing a new and more hard-edged role in the world. But the key is to look at the ways these roles might develop in specific areas of policy, and to see how they might interact in the future. The picture is necessarily a mixed one, but it points towards more fundamental problems for the UK than for the EU as a consequence of Brexit. The real problems for the EU come from elsewhere, as a look at several policy areas indicates. [...]

Central to the future relationship between the UK and the EU is the focus on trade and development. Much of the attention of negotiators and the public for the next year is likely to be on this area and particularly on trade. Both the EU and post-Brexit UK are ‘trading states’, highly dependent on international conditions to achieve prosperity and domestic stability. But for the UK, the question of trade in a post-Brexit world is will be conditioned by the continuing vulnerability, shaping its capacity to negotiate favourable agreements not only with the EU but also with a large group of powerful potential partners. For the EU, the challenge will not be as sharp – the loss of the UK is significant but not fundamental – but there are other challenges in an increasingly polarized global political economy, from the US, China and beyond. The linked question of development is arguably less challenging since there are already mechanisms aimed at coordinating development assistance activities among a mixed constellation of governmental and non-governmental organizations in specific regions; so the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU is in principle capable of being managed, assuming that basic changes in UK and EU policies are avoided. [...]

third area of post-Brexit uncertainty: transatlantic relations. The challenge of the Trump administration is in many ways a crystallization of trends that have been noticeable for a while: a US focus on hard power and military methods as opposed to soft power and negotiation, the globalism of US policies and the shift of US attention to the Indo-Pacific and the Asia-Pacific regions, the increasing weaponization of trade and economic policies in US foreign policy. For the British, this is the sharpest of dilemmas: their security and economic interests dictate a complex and sensitive balance between apparently irreconcilable forces in the US and the EU, a balance thrown into strong relief by recent disputes over the role of Huawei in 5G telecommunications, over policy towards Iran, and over a range of trade issues. This potent mix will only become more disabling in post-Brexit framing of the ‘global Britain’ discourse, again pointing to the exposed and vulnerable position of the UK. For the EU, as noted above, the close links between the UK and the US are challenging as they look to negotiate the future relationship with London, and the EU has itself proved vulnerable to the Trump challenge; but the political economies of scale offered by EU collective action can potentially prove an important insulating factor.

Both London and Brussels will find it difficult to translate role conceptions into role design and institutionalization, and both will experience problems of role performance in the post-Brexit world. For the UK, however, characterised by exposure and vulnerability in many areas, the challenge is more fundamental than for the EU; after all, the debate about the EU’s proper role in the global arena has been going on for fifty years, and there is an accumulation of habits of collective action (and inaction) that can be drawn upon. The defection of the UK is thus in principle a manageable challenge; less easily managed are the large changes in the global arena that threaten to marginalise the EU in a more polarized and geopolitics-centred world. Whilst this is evidently recognised in the new EU leadership, and the discourse of geopolitics has strengthened in recent months, there is no evidence yet that this challenge can easily be overcome.

Full article on LSE blog