What does leaving the EU mean for foreign policy?

Published: 7th Jul 2016

This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

The United States

NATO is the main method for defence cooperation with the US. The US has never tried to stop the EU from developing its own security and defence policy, so long as it doesn’t undermine NATO.

The US values the UK’s contribution to EU defence policy for two major reasons: UK defence capabilities and the ‘special relationship’.

The UK and France are seen as the only two EU nations with a serious defence capability and the UK is one of the few NATO members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Leaving would mean that the UK is no longer an example for other EU countries in this respect.

The US has relied on the UK to make sure that EU defence work doesn’t undermine or compete with NATO.

The House of Commons Library says that the failure of the US ‘Reset’ with Russia and conflict in the Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO and this aspect of the relationship between the UK and US.

The Middle East

The UK plays a limited but significant role in the Middle East, according to the House of Common Library. This influence is based on the UK’s history of engagement in the region, as well as international cooperation, a large aid programme and a significant military capability.

Most UK policy in the region is conducted with EU partners in some form, although there are relationships, particularly with the Gulf monarchies, that seem to develop without reference to the EU.

But sanctions, terrorist designations and the criteria for arms export control all tend to be decided at EU level. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the UK acts largely in concert with other EU members.

Some UK policies, like the sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, may be based both on decisions taken at the United Nations Security Council and decisions at the EU level.   

The United States remains the biggest actor in the region and many UK interventions have been with the US and NATO. The picture in the Middle East is a complex one of UK policy being co-ordinated with partners including the UN, EU and NATO, as well as bilaterally with the US and with governments in the region.

Leaving the EU will arguably not make much difference to the UK’s capacities in the Middle East. The House of Commons Library says that the UK could co-ordinate its Middle East policies more closely with those of the US.  As with defence policy, the Library notes that the UK leaving the EU will be more of a blow to EU foreign policy in the region.

On the other hand, Britain will have fewer ‘soft power’ tools in dealing with Middle Eastern countries without influence over a large EU aid budget and the promise of access to the largest consumer market in the world.

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