This week sees the biggest shift in British foreign policy in almost 50 years, as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. As an EU member, the UK shaped Europe’s foreign policy, from EU sanctions on Russia to the Iran nuclear deal. The UK wants to stay an influential European foreign policy power. But how can it outside the EU?

When European foreign ministers discussed Iran this month the Brits were there; in future they won’t be. The UK can still play a leading role in shaping Europe’s foreign policy after Brexit — but it will need to engage with Europe differently.

David Whineray
David Whineray was a nonresident fellow in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
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Up to 2016, British foreign policy was based on three pillars. First, Atlanticism. London routinely aligned with Washington on international issues and acted as a transatlantic bridge, explaining European views to the United States and vice versa. Second is leadership in the EU — specifically, the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Third, multilateralism. As a medium-sized power with global interests, an effective rules-based international order was central to advancing British interests.

Each of these pillars is now challenged. First, Brexit takes the UK out of the CFSP. Second, the rules-based international order is being undermined by Russia, China and, to an extent, the U.S. Third, Washington’s transatlantic outlook under the Trump administration has become more nationalistic, transactional and mercantile, with skepticism — sometimes even hostility — toward the EU and NATO.

The English Channel and the Atlantic have both widened since 2016. The UK’s traditional diplomatic handling of foreign policy crises — align with Washington and shape the EU response — no longer applies. So how can the UK lead European foreign policy after Brexit? Through four new steps.

First, by doing more bilaterally with European counties — especially France and Germany. New summits, dialogues and agreements could be launched.

Second, by using meetings of other international groupings to coordinate European foreign policy positions and actions. The so-called “E3” (Germany, France and the UK) works well on Iran — Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson issued a joint statement on Soleimani — and could be expanded to other issues. The Group of Seven (G7) could play a bigger foreign policy role too. 

Third, as part of this year’s negotiations on the UK’s future trade and security relationship with the EU, London and Brussels could agree to close co-operation on foreign policy. Various new mechanisms are possible. French President Macron has suggested creating a European Security Council including the UK. Alternatively, the UK could occasionally be invited to attend meetings of EU foreign ministers, as John Kerry did as U.S. secretary of State. Joint UK-EU statements could even be considered if the UK and EU wanted to show a united stance – including to Moscow and Beijing – such as after a use of chemical weapons.

Fourth, by working closely with the EU in other international organizations, particularly the United Nations. This would also help bolster multilateralism, and show the UK remains globally orientated.

Europe should support these steps. In or out of the EU, the UK is a major European political and military power, and one of only two European nuclear states and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. European views will pack more punch globally if the Brits are also on board. Growing transatlantic tensions also mean Brussels, Paris and Berlin should keep London within the European foreign policy orbit instead of seeing it adopt a more Trumpian outlook.

Against a geo-political backdrop of transatlantic divisions, Britain’s ability to lead European foreign policy after Brexit will ultimately depend on the strategic posture it chooses to adopt between Europe and the US. In short, will the UK align more with Washington on foreign policy after Brexit? Does the UK see its interests and values remaining European? Or will it adopt a policy of strategic equidistance?

Despite Brexit, since the 2016 referendum the UK has supported the EU, not the US, on major transatlantic disagreements — including Iran, trade, climate change and China. Brussels and Washington will look closely at whether this continues or changes. The UK wants trade deals with both.

This article was originally published in the Hill.