nicholas wrightWhen the UK leaves the EU, it will also lose access to its foreign and security policy institutions – and, of course, vice versa. Nicholas Wright (University College London) looks at what this will mean for one of the most effective weapons in the EU’s armoury of soft power: sanctions.

The UK’s foreign and security policy-focused departments have faced very significant resource constraints in recent years, with the FCO particularly hard hit. Tight financial settlements under Labour were exacerbated by the Coalition’s austerity policies and subsequently, and the FCO has lost over one quarter of its staff since 2010. The impact of such repeated resource shrinkage has been a cause of concern. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee warned the FCO ‘is being stretched almost to the limit …[and] may be in danger of trying to do too much at a time when capacity is being limited’ and the government has been urged to ‘prioritise spending on diplomacy, development and defence’ regardless of Brexit to maintain Britain’s international role and influence. While the UK will still retain significant capacities, for example through its aid budget, Brexit means the UK will lose access to a range of EU-level foreign and security policy institutions and resources, notably the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), with the EU in turn losing access to the UK’s range of contributions.

federica mogherini

Federica Mogherini at the UN in New York, September 2017. Photo: European External Action Service via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

For the UK, this means it will therefore no longer enjoy the multiplier effects available to all member states through EU membership – its foreign policy ‘added value’. Thus, in responding to international issues, the UK will no longer benefit from the combined resources available to 28 member states, for example in development and humanitarian aid where the EU is the world’s largest development aid donor; the weight and influence of their collective decision-making; the EU’s collective diplomatic clout when it is able to speak with one voice; or its considerable soft power. In evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP), made clear what she considered the significance of this power to be:

‘Soft power is our hard power in some ways. […] If you put together our humanitarian aid and development co-operation envelopes with our trade relations around the world, the EU is everywhere. In all sectors, we are the first interlocutor, partner or donor. […] you can use your trade agreements your development work and your humanitarian money to have a coherent approach…’

Outside the EU, the UK will continue to pursue its international policies and seek to exercise influence. However, as an individual actor rather than part of a group of 28, some diminution of impact must be expected, while a number of important institutional challenges will need to be addressed.

A prime example is the development and implementation of sanctions. Designed with ‘the aim of maintaining or restoring international peace and security’, and changing how the target country behaves, these usually involve asset freezes, trade embargoes and travel bans. For example, the UK as one of the E3 (the other two members of the group being France and Germany) worked hard to develop and maintain an EU-level sanctions regime as part of its comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran’s nuclear programme, and indeed without the EU sanctions regime as the foundation of their action, it is unlikely the E3 would have been credible interlocutors for Iran. The UK has adopted a similar approach in advocating a robust EU sanctions regime against Russia as a consequence of its actions in the Crimea and Ukraine, particularly important in the absence of a UN-level response. Indeed, Tom Keatinge and Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute have argued that the UK ‘has, typically, been a robust advocate for the use of sanctions’ by the EU, and has been ‘an important voice’ in their design.  Meanwhile, former Foreign Secretary William Hague makes clear the importance of the EU in both cases:

‘I do not believe that the Iran policy would have been as successful as it was without working with the whole of the EU and the United States, or that we would have any robustness at all to our policy on Russia without our ability to do that.’

However the UK faces a significant practical challenge to its capacity to deploy sanctions as a consequence of Brexit. Currently, the UK imposes sanctions based on decisions by United Nations Security Council and the EU, with the EU either supplementing those agreed by the UNSC or, where the latter cannot reach agreement, acting alone. Outside the EU, the UK will need its own domestic sanctions policy-making and design capacities, tasks which are currently carried out predominantly by the EU. This will include ‘provid[ing] capacity in the legal system to make available legal remedies sought in sanctions cases that would previously have been heard at the European level’, as well as ensuring it has the legal mechanisms and expertise to ensure sanctions agreed by the UN can be enforced, again something currently carried out by the EU in the context of the CFSP. As part of its strategy to address this challenge, the government recently introduced a new Sanctions Bill into Parliament to provide the necessary legal powers to replace those that will be lost once the European Communities Act is formally repealed and enable it to ‘continue to play a central role in global sanctions’.

At the same time, the UK will have to consider how it engages with the EU over sanctions given it will no longer have any formal influence over the latter’s sanctions-related decision-making. For example, in the context of Iran, the maintenance of the EU’s sanctions regime for such an extended period was challenging diplomatically, with a number of member states questioning their value, and thus required intensive discussions at all levels of the EU’s foreign policy-making pyramid. Similarly, while the EU recently renewed its sanctions regime against Russia, there are clear divisions between member states which have required painstaking negotiation to overcome.

The UK’s significance as a global financial centre means that any unilateral sanctions it chooses to impose will still carry weight, while from the EU side there will be clear value in achieving alignment with the UK where the two parties agree on the necessity of sanctions against a third party. However, Brexit means the UK will need to ‘relearn’ the skills and capabilities necessary to develop effective sanctions, whilst ensuring it can continue to engage with the EU27 and at the same time using other multilateral venues such as the OECD and G20 to ensure co-ordination and coherence in their implementation.

Its ability to do this will be yet another test for the government as it faces up to the challenge of developing a coherent and comprehensive post-Brexit foreign policy.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It is an extract from a UCL European Institute Working Paper, Brexit and the re-making of British foreign policy.

Dr Nicholas Wright is Teaching Fellow in EU Politics in the UCL Department of Political Science.

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