Sir Simon McDonald, permanent under-secretary of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, pictured, was the keynote speaker at Thursday’s talk
Photo: Jan Hanrion/Maison Moderne
On Thursday 5 March the British Embassy and the Robert Schuman Institute organised a seminar to discuss the issue of British foreign policy post Brexit. Despite a panel of speakers that included a senior civil servant and several highly respected academics, it soon became clear that there is none.
In September 2017 the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson was quoted as saying, “As we leave the EU, the UK’s commitment to European security remains undiminished. We will pursue a global foreign policy and continue to work in partnership with our neighbours to promote peace, democracy and security in our continent and across the world.” How the UK is to achieve this was the subject of the panel discussion.
Sir Simon McDonald, permanent under-secretary of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was the keynote speaker who had the unenviable task of speaking on behalf of the UK government. He began by making his role quite clear. “I am a civil servant, it is my duty to implement government policy,” he said, adding: “The Brexit vote is the single most disorienting event of my career.”
He continued by encouraging participants to accept the facts, “Brexit is real, it is going to happen. It is not going to be revisited or reversed.” That said he did also comment that, “after the vote to leave, there was no debate on how it would affect the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world, it was just accepted that we would remain a global player.”
Photo: Jan Hanrion/Maison Moderne. Sir Simon McDonald, pictured applauded the efforts of the British Embassy to keep Luxembourg citizens informed on Brexit
However, this assumption that the UK will remain a major global player just because it always has been does not represent concrete foreign policy. Sir Simon listed why the UK has historically been a global heavyweight, citing such reasons as, “We are permanent members of the UN security council and will continue to play an active role, we also had a vast ambassadorial network of 274 posts around the world, which we will bolster in the future.”
He set down what he believes should be the UK’s priorities going forward, saying that it would continue to put Europe first and look to reinforce its counter terrorism network, as well as expand its network of ambassadorial post around the world. Next the UK should seek to strengthen relations with Russia, the Middle East and China. However, “should” and “will dos” also do not form part of a solid policy.
It is all very well for Boris Johnson to declare that, “the UK will pursue a global foreign policy”, but the time has long since passed to translate these good intentions into a concrete action plan. In order for people like Sir Simon to do their job good intentions are not enough and the deadline for the UK’s departure from the EU is just around the corner.
The efforts of the British Embassy to keep Luxembourg citizens informed on Brexit are to be applauded, it is just a pity that the UK government doesn’t seem to be making any. It cannot be easy to be faced with a public hungry for clarity and have very little to give them.