Repercussions of Brexit in Far East: Review of Britain’s Foreign Policy Outlook Following Brexit

Sunday, March 4, 2018


Behzad Ahmadi
Senior expert on Europe

Why Brexit took place?

There is an age-old belief in Europe according to which the European Union came into being to achieve two major goals. On the one hand, it was aimed at putting an end to the long and historical hostility between Germany and France on the basis of neofunctionalist theories, while on the other hand, the European Union (EU) was basically supposed to be a private club for the rich. In fact, it was supposed to be a union between the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) and a number of other European industrial nations, including France, the UK, and Germany. When this union started to expand toward the east and center of Europe, it was no more a union for the rich. The final outcome of the European Union’s expansion was increased power of Germany with the UK always believing that the process has worked to its detriment. This way of thinking and the assumption that the UK and its people were bearing the brunt of the EU’s expenses while Germany and France were reaping the benefits came together with nationalistic and radical ideas in Britain to trigger the process of Britain’s divorce from the EU, which is known as Brexit.


What will happen to Britain’s presence in West Asia following Brexit?

Brexit expected to reach its final station in March 2019 and the responsibility to pull off this task has been entrusted to the British Prime Minister Theresa May. When it comes to the impact of Brexit on Britain’s presence in West Asia, it must be noted that the main motto of Brexit is “Global Britain,” which means that the UK will get rid of its European constraints and make a return to the British order and peace across the globe, which was in place up to the 19th century. Therefore, Britain’s presence across the world can be expected to increase. Through presence in the Middle East, as a strategic region with many potentialities, Britain is trying to play a global role and attain political prestige at international level, while in parallel, meeting its own economic interests. One, therefore, can expect that this aspect of Britain’s behavior will intensify following the Brexit and even develop into more dimensions.

An article was published by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in April 2013, entitled “A Return to East of Suez? UK Military Deployment to the Gulf[1],” in which the authors talked about the necessity for Britain to reclaim the global standing it had before World War II. However, this is not likely to happen in reality. The region is not what it was in the 1960s anymore. The West Asia region and its dynamisms have greatly changed. In addition, dynamism of Britain's foreign policy has also changed and, at the present time, the most important issue for Britain is Brexit, not presence in the Middle East.

However, Britain’s powerful presence in this region can be imagined along the lines and within the framework set by the United States. In fact, based on the motto of “America First,” the United States has been trying to keep its distance from this region and allow other actors to play a more pronounced role in the West Asia region and also undertake its higher costs; the same costs, which were previously undertaken by the United States. In fact, the UK is trying to fill the power void that exists in the Middle East region in coordination with the United States, or in the most pessimistic scenario, without coordination with it. At any rate, Britain is currently doing the same thing in the Persian Gulf that other powers are doing. Arab states of the Persian Gulf are active customers of this country while Iran is its potential customer. Britain sees Arab states as cash customers. However, a closer look will reveal that Britain has no intention of undertaking long-term obligations with regard to developments in the Middle East region.


Is Britain drifting away from the United States? Are we witnessing a transatlantic gap?

The United States is basically a link, which can help the UK go on with its globalization drive. Of course, the British apparently despise Americans an example of which was the reaction shown by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and people of this country to a visit to Britain by US President Donald Trump. However, they know that they still need the United States in order to gain global prominence. This is why transatlantic ties with the United States are very important to them. For the British, the worst-case scenario is to have to wait until Trump's term in office is finished and then they can take steps to boost bilateral relations again. When it comes to international trade, Trump has adopted new policies, which, as put by him, are aimed at making conditions of trade between the US and other countries fairer. This policy and Washington’s withdrawal from a number of multilateral agreements convey the message to other countries that the United States has opted for some form of mild economic mercantilism on the basis of Trump’s policy to give priority to the United States and its national interests, and other countries must await further developments in this regard. However, and despite their disgruntlement, maintenance of transatlantic relations is of very high importance both to Britain and other member states of the European Union.


Will Brexit weaken the European Union?

Britain’s exit from the EU will harm both sides. Following the exit of Britain, the EU will be weakened because the UK was of high importance to the EU due to a number of factors. Those factors include Britain’s high economic indexes, powerful British centers that provide financial services to the world, the country’s modern army and nuclear weapons, and its permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, Brexit will be also a painful experience for Britain, because it will be deprived of the common European market, and will be out of a powerful political and economic European block, while its impact on the EU’s policies and, subsequently, on the entire world will decrease.

The European Union has been losing its clout since 2008 up to the present time, and there are many reasons for this issue one of which is Brexit. Following their financial crisis, many member states of the EU have been witness to the rise of far-right and far-left extremist parties and the fact that such parties are gaining more power has caused practical problems for the continuation of integration within the EU. France was spared in this process through its recent elections, but the far-right German party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has risen in power as an opposition party and won a large percentage of votes in the country’s recent general elections. A closer look will also reveal that far-right parties have been also gaining power in Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, and most of these parties are against the common European currency, euro, and against European integration. These countries have been actually acting against the decisions made by the European Commission. For example, with regard to accepting asylum seekers and refugees or with respect to the energy policy, there are major differences between them and Germany and the EU.

These are internal problems facing the EU. The problem of asylum seekers was a good shock for the EU as was the eurozone crisis. However, these gaps have not been narrowed yet. Of course, it seems that the eurozone crisis has been somehow managed and the European integration project is still in coma. So, can we say that the integration process has totally stopped in Europe or is doomed to fail? No, but the future outlook for this integration is facing a serious challenge.

The fate of this integration largely depends on relations between France and Germany. As long as leaders in these two countries remain committed to integration at economic and political levels, the integration project will go ahead. Therefore, the European integration will continue under these conditions and the exit of Britain from the EU will not bar this process. Of course, Britain’s exit from the EU may motivate other countries to follow suit and leave the union as a result of which the leaders of the EU have been pursuing the Brexit process with the utmost degree of care and strictness.

From the viewpoint of realism and with regard to the issue of the balance of power, the EU has helped maintain the balance of power across Europe. The policies adopted by the new French President Emmanuel Macron and his slogans show that France intends to be the next leader of the European Union following Britain’s exit, though with help from Germany. After the election of Macron, the French president has been making the same effort that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made before, as a result of which she gained prominence among European leaders. However, it seems that at the present juncture, it is Macron, who is gaining prominence. At the present time, conditions are not good for Germany’s domestic policy and the country’s political parties have not reached an agreement on forming a coalition government yet, which has greatly undermined Merkel’s standing. The weakness of Germany’s domestic policy and perhaps the fact that Germans themselves are not willing to assume a more powerful role at European and international levels, are all helping France in its bid to rise to the top. German’s are still uncertain about the role that they want to play within the EU: to become just a bigger Switzerland or turn into a global Germany?

However, a more powerful dynamism is seen in France. The French people are more aware of domestic problems such as the country’s failure to meet its economic expectations, and they also feel the dwindling position of France at European and international levels, and want to reclaim their country’s past standing. On the other hand, the time is now ripe for the government of France in order to use the presence of this country at European and international levels as a means to somehow cover up its domestic insufficiencies and meet the highest degree of its economic interests. All these factors have prompted France to seek a special presence in Europe and the Middle East. Therefore, France is trying to follow a policy that would allow it to talk to all countries while appearing to be impartial. For example, with regard to the Iran's nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), France both supports Iran and the United States in order to find itself a good maneuvering space. At any rate, the EU helps establish some sort of balance of power between France and Germany and this is another factor that guarantees continuation of the European integration.


What will be the post-Brexit Britain’s policy toward the US: Maintaining the status quo or reviving and strengthening relations?

As for the British, there is no doubt that they seek to improve their relations with the United States, but due to Trump's policy, the problems and challenges that exist between the two countries have become more prominent. At the present time, the British hope that by maintaining the status quo, management of harmful factors, and taking advantage of opportunities, they would be able to weather Trump's term in office and find a new opportunity in the future for the expansion and repair of the two countries’ relations and transatlantic ties.

Trump is considered as a unique phenomenon. Neorealist thinkers believe that structure affects the agent, but the Trump phenomenon has caused doubts even among the staunchest supporters of realism, making them believe that the agent can also affect the structure.

This is what is happening with regard to the European Union as well. In fact, they will be able to manage transatlantic relations under the current conditions and wait for Trump's term to end so that they would once again see their chance to repair and improve these relations.


How do you assess the EU’s future in case Brexit takes place with full force, which means if trade, economic and political relations between Britain and the EU do not fit in any format that this union has for cooperation with its partners?

This would be the worst possible scenario to take place. Although the British like to consider themselves as something separate from Europe, let us not forget that a large part of their identity and norms is closely tied to Europe. As put by the British officials, their country will only exit the European Union, not Europe. The EU has been taking an austere approach to the issue of Brexit, because this is the first time that a country has decided to leave the European Union and being the first country doing this, it may turn into a role model for other European states.

The diplomatic background and past experience show that the EU and Britain will finally come up with a suitable formula for Brexit that will ensure both sides’ interests. Both sides are well aware of the importance that they have for each other and will continue their relations in a constructive manner.


When the EU is planning to get rid of the United States’ domination? Basically speaking, does such a demand exist among Europeans?

Europeans have been taking advantage of the international system that came into being following World War II and we must not forget this point. In fact, Europeans have taken advantage of the system created by the United States, though they have a feeling that some of the rules of this system work to their detriment. Even at the outset of this system, Europeans found the change of rules in favor of the United States painful, but they accepted those rules and gave in to the US hegemony. The main question is will Europeans be able to play the role of the main actor in the international system and provide such public goods as international security and economy? In reality, it is very unlikely that Europe would be able to do this. All the effort that Europe makes in confrontation with the US is aimed at changing those rules, which are not in its favor. Otherwise, European countries do not even dream about full-blown confrontation with the United States and the liberal system based on the hegemony of capital, which is led by the United States.

Today, due to policies adopted by Trump and encouragement from the US, which wants European countries to pay more for the functioning of the NATO and bolster their European armies, one can hear whispers here and there about Europe’s defensive security, which is also known as the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). This means that European countries are getting ideas about their own defense and security initiative and in doing this, they seek some sort of strategic autonomy from the United States. Of course, under the current circumstances, it is very unlikely for them to achieve this goal. On the whole, confrontation with the United States is not a conclusion that one could reach by studying the current power structure in Europe.


What is your opinion about objectives of Ms. May’s China visit and her effort to revive Britain’s relations with China?

The current mental priority for Britain as well as the first and foremost priority for Theresa May is Brexit. As a result of this condition, she has been under heavy criticism from think tanks as well as opposition groups inside Britain.

The same factor that has prompted Britain to pursue a new Middle Eastern policy has also caused London to think about reviving its relations with China. Starting in 2008-2009, China has been emerging as a source of financial support for the European Union and an economic opportunity for that bloc. This issue has caused European countries to demand China embark on various kinds of investment in European countries. The Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Britain in 2015 during which he promised that his country would invest a total of forty billion pounds in Britain. Now, May is making a reciprocal visit to China in order to, among other things, follow up on the agreement reached during Xi’s visit. Therefore, following the eurozone crisis and the issue of Brexit, the first goal of May’s visit to China has been to boost economic cooperation between the two sides. Both the delegation that accompanied May in her China visit and the type of her behavior in China proved that economy was the main objective of her China trip. During that visit, May was not concerned about the issue of human rights and other normative and international problems that China usually has with Western countries. Therefore, she merely visited that country through a trade and economic approach. Before that trip, everybody expected May to raise transparent and critical discussions with the Chinese leaders about human rights issues, the issue of Hong Kong and the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula. However, none of these issues was subject of the two sides’ negotiations. With regard to the issue of human rights, the two sides talked behind closed doors and even then, they merely focused on the intellectual property rights, particularly the copyright issue, which fall within framework of Britain’s economic and trade interests.

Under former British prime minister, David Cameron, there was some sort of balance between the two countries’ relations. However, the balance in bilateral relations has been replaced with imbalance in favor of China during Theresa May’s term in office, because the Chinese side is well aware of the current needs of Britain and, in particular, Beijing has good knowledge of London’s weaknesses in the period of Brexit. This is totally evident in promises that Chinese officials have given the British side as well as in accurate phrases that they have used to describe May’s visit to China. In fact, in that trip, we were more faced with a pragmatic Britain than a normative one. The Chinese side saw this pragmatism and lack of normativity on the part of Britain as desirable, and this was the reason behind the warm welcome that Chinese people gave May’s visit, which they considered to be a positive development.

I think that the same pragmatism can be applied to the current relations between Britain and Iran and the two sides can take advantage of its potentialities.


More by Behzad Ahmadi:
*Germany’s General Elections and the Outlook of Tehran-Berlin Relations:
*Iran’s Constructive Role in Relation to European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy:
*Iran, EU Open New Chapter in Bilateral Cooperation :


* Photo CreditScmp

*Source: Farhikhtegan newspaper

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.


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