Is the UK shedding its reputation as the eccentric of the global stage?

Rishi Sunak’s first task was clear when he became UK Prime Minister last October: to stabilize a British economy that Liz Truss, his disastrous predecessor, had brought to the brink. He has succeeded, thanks to his cool common sense and his refusal to indulge the feverish obsessions of the right wing of the Conservative party he rules. In the last weeks, Sunak has taken the same approach on foreign affairs.

Relations with Europe

At the top of the agenda was the problem of the Northern Ireland Protocol, that “border in the Irish Sea” from Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, which had infuriated both ‘Brexiteers’ Tories and Northern Irish unionists. Peace in Northern Ireland was endangered by the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) boycott of power-sharing institutions, and Johnson’s threats to renege on the deal poisoned relations with Brussels (and Washington).

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The European Union had already offered solutions to most practical problems 18 months earlier. But the new Windsor Framework added a clever political wrapper. In fact, the ‘brexiteer’ wing of the Tory party appears to have acquiesced with relatively little fuss, and even the DUP is obviously struggling to find reasons to continue its resistance. The prospect of an imminent visit to Ireland by US President Joe Biden should cap an early foreign policy success for Sunak.

Relations with Europe were further normalized with the first Anglo-French summit in five years and the preconceived romance with Emmanuel Macron, an easy victory, given that even the Europhobic Britons they are usually willing to show some respect to the French.

Beyond Paris, the “soda” of Sunak (Integrated Review 2023 – IR23) of Johnson’s foreign and security policy for 2021 states that the Windsor Framework should open the door to “a revitalization of our European relations”. Good will, we are assured, “includes the EU”. The European Political Community is mentioned with approval. But it is not defined what is expected from the improvement of relations with Europe, apart from the continued cooperation on Ukraine.

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For example, there is no mention of Britain’s return to the EU’s Horizon program for collaboration in science and technology. This is a strange omission, given that the UK’s strength in these areas stands out as a key to the future prosperity and security of the country — though Sunak may just be playing coy — until cost sharing is negotiated. Other obvious areas of potentially beneficial cooperation between the UK and the EU, such as standard setting for new technologies, are also absent. But there are limits to what Brexiteers can swallow.

And beyond

Then came the San Diego meeting with Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. In it, it was clarified a little more how the Aukus pact is expected to develop to equip Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines, albeit slowly, it seems. But the meeting provided serendipitous justification for Sunak’s claim at IR23 that “the UK has delivered on the ambition we set for the Indo-Pacific”, thus allowing this central theme of the “Global Britain” hype. de Johnson deemphasizes from now on.

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In other respects, too, the IR23 lbear the seal of Sunak: He is thoughtful and no-nonsense, largely purged of ‘Johnsonian’ swagger, while resisting pressure from the right for more defense spending and a more belligerent China policy.

The report does not mince words in pointing out how the international landscape has darkened in the past two years. It points to “an international order more favorable to authoritarianism” and security threats of unprecedented complexity, mainly due to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s direction and behavior. Great Britain and her allies have to work harder, and with all the levers of state power, to “outdo in cooperation and competition” to those who challenge their values ​​and interests in a ‘post-western’ world. In addition, the IR23 devotes a lot of space to ensuring resilience against non-military vulnerabilities: be it artificial intelligence and ‘cyber threats’ rapidly evolving or armamentarism of dependencies in the global economy.

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The government will put up money for defence, but an extra 5 billion pounds over two years is far less than many Conservatives had asked for. The money won’t go towards the overall rebuilding of Britain’s military, either: it will be spent on restoring ammunition stocks depleted by transfers to Ukraine, and on investments to ensure Britain’s future as a nuclear power (think of the capabilities of both nuclear warheads and nuclear submarines). Beyond that, the budget increase de defense up to 2.5% of GDP is announced only as an “aspiration”.

China’s hawks have not been satisfied either. China not designated as a direct “threat”: IR23 settles for identifying “an epoch-defining systemic challenge.” The British response will be threefold: “strengthen our national security protectionsalign ourselves and cooperate with our partners, and engage when consistent with our interests”. But no new cold war, thanks, among other things, because many states of the increasingly important South “do not want to be dragged into a zero sum competition nor does the UK.

We’re not out of the woods yet

In general, Sunak can be satisfied with this first round of commitments on foreign affairs. It has reinforced the impression that the British government is once again in sound and competent hands. And the Tory breasts are beginning to churn with the hope that they might, after all, escape obliteration at the next election. But Sunak’s right is quiet, not tamed, and, Marco Windsor notwithstanding, there is still plenty of Brexit poison in the system.

To begin with, Brexit was sold on the promise that Britain would “regain control” of its borders. But instead, the ‘Brexiteers’ have the spectacle of the daily ‘invasion’ of small boats bringing in “illegal immigrants” through the Channel. Sensing the anger of the right and the potential electoral advantage, Sunak has introduced a law that obliges the government to detain and expel immigrants, regardless of their age, their family ties, their asylum needs or international law. It’s probably unfeasible.

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PICTURED: NATO ships arrive in London.  (Reuters/Hannah McKay)
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But it may provide an opportunity for ‘Brexiteers’ to push again for another unsatisfied goal: abandoning the European Convention on Human Rights. This would mean more problems for Sunak, since “respect [del convenio] crosses the TCA [el Acuerdo de Comercio y Cooperación, la base de la relación de Gran Bretaña con la UE tras el Brexit] like writing through a rock stick”. Therefore, Sunak is playing with fire here.

Even if a new crisis with Europe on this issue is avoided, then a new conflict could loom over the plan (which Sunak inherited) to have all EU law withheld —around 4,000 or 5,000 articles? No one knows—will be reviewed by the government later this year. Then it will be kept, modified or discarded. Businesses hate the idea, as do those who care about preserving decades of achievements in social, labor and environmental regulation. The EU will consider that it undermines the basis of “equal footing” of the ATT. But Brexiteers, with their teeth already clenched around this bone, will be in no mood to give it up.

Rishi Sunak ha reintroducido a sensible pragmatism in the direction of British economic and foreign policy. But, as leader of the current Tory party, he is riding a tiger.

*Published analysis originally in English at the European Council on Foreign Relations por Nick Witney y titulado ‘Sanity returns to British foreign policy’

Rishi Sunak’s first task was clear when he became UK Prime Minister last October: to stabilize a British economy that Liz Truss, his disastrous predecessor, had brought to the brink. He has succeeded, thanks to his cool common sense and his refusal to indulge the feverish obsessions of the right wing of the Conservative party he rules. In the last weeks, Sunak has taken the same approach on foreign affairs.

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