The messy business of implementing Brexit

Posted On: 
10th August 2016

With the country now focused on disentangling itself from the EU, Political Consultant Arpinder Baryana sets out the new landscape in foreign affairs, development and defence policy.

Boris Johnson has said Britain must be reshaped into "a great global player"
Credit: 
PA

2016 has already been a bumper year for foreign policy developments, with the country rocked by Brexit and the migration crisis still making headlines.  With Theresa May’s new government in place and a departmental shake up, the focus has now shifted to the messy business of implementing the referendum result with Brexiteers David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox leading the charge.   

The Government has indicated a pivot to commonwealth partners with ties to countries such as Australia and India to be strengthened. Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland recently said member countries had been worried they had lost a strong voice in Europe but added there would be benefits to having “reignited the Commonwealth family”.  Although Boris Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary, albeit in an arguably diminished FCO, was met with a mixture of bemusement and ire from foreign counterparts, the ex-Mayor may yet surprise if he is as successful in selling Brand Britain’s global profile as he was in selling London.

In development, the sector will be keeping a close eye on newly-appointed Secretary of State Priti Patel, who has previously advocated scrapping the department she now heads. Early indications from Patel have suggested a much stronger focus on developing trade links and she has reportedly been in discussions with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox on a controversial plan to “leverage” UK aid to “open the door” to new trade deals. Theresa May has, however, reiterated the Government’s commitment to 0.7 per cent aid spending and her agenda of cracking down on injustices such as tax evasion will likely feature in the months to come, with the Home Office-led Criminal Finances Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech yet to surface. Minister of State Rory Stewart, with his military background and experience of on-the-ground humanitarian intervention will also be one to watch.   

On defence, the May government was quick to underline the UK’s commitment to its international partners, particularly within NATO, as well as its commitment to two per cent spending. Indeed, one of the prime minister’s first set pieces in Parliament was the vote on Trident renewal, before which she urged MPs not to take a “reckless gamble” on the UK’s security.  However, a number of challenges remain on the horizon, not least the UK’s constitutional arrangements. With the Union with Scotland at risk and concerns over the Good Friday Agreement looming, the UK may become more inward-looking in some respects as it becomes increasingly preoccupied with disentangling itself from the EU.

Nevertheless, the UK will need to remain a strong security provider for European partners and other allies, which we may see as a key bargaining chip in negotiations with the EU, as suggested by RUSI deputy-director-general Professor Malcolm Chalmers. Many Baltic states will be seeking reassurance that the UK will continue to support operations there in light of recent Russian aggression, with David Cameron pledging 650 troops in the region on his way out of Number 10. The Royal Navy’s role in tackling migration flows in the Mediterranean is expected to continue but may run into difficulties, with the current fleet already stretched and naval capability constrained by delays in the procurement of the new Type 26 Global Combat Ship and the Type 45 Destroyer.

Meanwhile the Government’s recent rowing back on alleged breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen by Saudi Arabia is set to continue to be on the agenda for opposition parties, with former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, amongst others, continuing to highlight the cause.

Defence committee chair Julian Lewis has also indicated, in response to criticism in the House, that the committee will be looking at the implications of Brexit for defence. Many in the sector have called for a new Strategic Defence and Security Review to reflect the UK’s new position and clarify its strategic priorities to international partners but the Government does not currently seem to favour this.

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