Anyone seeking further evidence that Brexit is for real and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union will not be reversed need look no further than the Foreign Office in London. The appointment of Jeremy Hunt as foreign secretary after the resignation of Boris Johnson in July has been accompanied by a change in outlook that treats Brexit as though it has already happened and the UK’s European chapter as retreating into the past.
Continental Europe is now being regarded as a collection of foreign countries, rather than as a grouping of which the British were part. And the chase is on to cement bilateral relations around the world. The rallying cry is “Global Britain”. How far this is either the reality or realistic might perhaps be judged by the contrasting commemorations for the First World War Armistice. More than 70 countries represented in Paris, with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin given pride of place; London’s only distinguished visitor: the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier – without precedent, it is true, but nothing like the vast gathering in Paris.
Now it is true that, for many in the UK - especially the majority in England who voted for Brexit by a 7 per cent margin – the change of foreign policy direction alters little. They always saw Continental Europe as “foreign”. EU citizens living in the UK often complained that they were described as, “migrants”, rather than fellow Europeans who had exercised their right to free movement, just like UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU.
For pro-EU Remainers, however, largely concentrated in the south and south-east of the country, the very idea that the UK was leaving the EU called for a different mindset. And while many are still struggling with Brexit - hoping against hope that it will not happen, or actively resisting it, as shown by the huge pro-Europe march last month - the Foreign Office has had no such luxury. And the requirement for change is perhaps more profound here than it is anywhere in government or beyond.
This is because the European Union has been the focus and preoccupation of UK foreign policy for at least half a century, indeed for most of the period since the Second World War. First, we were trying to join when it was the Common Market and being rebuffed (1963); then we managed to join (1972). Thereafter, Margaret Thatcher negotiated more advantageous financial terms (1984), then the UK tried, with some success, to steer it towards ever wider, rather than “ever closer” union.
One conclusion might be, that in advocating, and progressively securing, EU enlargement, the UK actually sowed the seeds of Brexit, given that a contributory factor in the Leave vote was the number of “new” Europeans who had come to the UK after 2005. Nonetheless, the Brexit vote came as an enormous shock to the Whitehall establishment, and it could be argued that it has taken the full two years since the referendum for the reality of Brexit fully to penetrate the corridors of power.
Not only had the UK become thoroughly integrated into the structures and mechanisms of the European Union, but EU membership had become so central to UK foreign policy that diplomatic priorities – and careers - were planned accordingly. That is now changing, though unravelling the connections is proving difficult.
Some might say that the big impact of Brexit on foreign policy came with the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary when Theresa May became Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation. But that was just a first step, and more for show than substance. Johnson was promoted for three reasons: to keep him inside the government tent (and prevent him from establishing a rival base of power); to ensure a majority of leading Brexiteers in the Cabinet, but also to keep him as far away from the Brexit process as possible, which was the domain of the new Department for Exiting the EU and given to David Davis, a Brexiteer probably deemed less dangerous to the Prime Minister.
In his time at the Foreign Office, Johnson seemed to be perpetually travelling to far-flung places – the further, and the less key to future UK interests, it sometimes seemed, the better. This remoteness from the policy centre may help to explain Johnson’s frustration and eventual departure.
The difference now that Jeremy Hunt has replaced him is striking. Where Johnson was effectively excluded from a large part of the traditional foreign office geography, Hunt appears to have the whole post-Brexit world before him – including the countries of the EU. His first big trips were to Germany, China and the US, in that order. Since then he has been to Japan (giving a speech in Japanese), Burma, the UN General Assembly, where he spoke about the Korean Peninsula, to half a dozen EU countries, and most recently to Paris (where he gave his speech in French). Other meetings, including with the Iranian foreign minister, have taken place in London.
One point to notice from his schedule is that Brexit is commonly mentioned as a topic of discussion. In other words, he is trusted to talk about this, where Boris Johnson was not. Another is that his brief includes the EU countries. A third might be that the UK now realises that it is setting off by itself and will have to try harder to exert influence – hence, maybe, the foreign language efforts. And a fourth: that there is now a bit less talk and a bit more action about “Global Britain”. This may have something to do with a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the spring, which complained that ministers still needed “too show that the idea of ‘global Britain’ means more than a continuation of… current activities”, and was not more of a “slogan” than a “policy”.
Hunt also has more money to play with than his predecessor. After a decade in which the Foreign Office has suffered severe budget cuts, there seems to be a recognition that Brexit Britain is going to need a longer, more substantial, and necessarily more expensive, diplomatic reach. In a recent address in London, Hunt said there were plans to add 12 new diplomatic representations and nearly 1,000 new position, including more than 300 extra diplomats. There were also plans for diplomats to learn more languages.
How far actual policy is changing, or will change, however, is another matter. Yes, the countries of the EU will be treated as foreign, just as the UK will be treated as a “third” country by Brussels after 29 March next year. And, yes, the UK plans to open new diplomatic missions, mainly in parts of Africa. But the message, so far, in three key areas sounds like more of the same.
In his same speech, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the importance of “democracy” and “values” – codes for disapproval of Russia, and to a lesser extent, of China. This suggests that Brexit Britain is not planning to normalise relations with Russia, at least not yet. A recent paper on UK-Russia policy, published by the international affairs think tank, Chatham House, drew attention to what it said could be perceived as a “double standard”, as the UK called for tougher sanctions against Moscow which did not affect UK-Russia trade, and appeared to turn a blind eye to ill-gotten gains, not just of Russians, spent in London.
The accusation of double standards had surfaced again, following the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Turkey, with the UK Government’s call to wait for more information being contrasted with its immediate move to sanction Russia over the Skripal poisoning.
A similar, though less glaring, mismatch can be seen in policy towards China, with Hunt highlighting the presence of a UK warship to protect sea lanes in the South China Sea, while calling for increased trade and not mentioning, for instance, human rights abuses in China and Hongkong.
These contradictions look set to persist, and even sharpen, as the UK seeks a new place in international affairs separate from the European Union, but for the time being also from the United States – over Iran and free trade, for instance – which would in the past have been seen as offering an alternative pole of attraction.
The more active and “global” policy that the post-Brexit Britain seems to want to pursue, could face another obstacle, too, in the shape of UK public opinion. An assumption has been that Brexit voters took a nostalgic view of foreign policy and wanted the UK to strut more proudly on the world stage. But this is not the whole story.
This constituency may not support either the ambition of a higher international profile, or the spending that will be needed to support it. The debate on post-Brexit priorities for UK foreign policy is not over; indeed, it has barely begun.