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The Government began using the phrase “Global Britain” shortly after the 2016 referendum to reflect, in the words of then Prime Minister Theresa May: “our ambitious vision for Britain after Brexit”. Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, speaking in the same year, affirmed the Government’s intent to continue to run a “truly global foreign policy”.[1]

What that means in practice has been questioned by MPs in the intervening years. In 2018 the Foreign Affairs Committee undertook an inquiry to learn more about its meaning, finding:

The most frequent complaint we have heard from several witnesses is that the only thing that is clear about Global Britain is that it is unclear what it means, what it stands for or how its success should be measured.[2]

Ministers, and MPs, have discussed Global Britain on multiple occasions since then (ministerial speeches can be found on Gov.uk: Global Britain, while Parliamentary debates and statements are collated in Library briefing paper International affairs and defence: Parliamentary debates and statements in the 2019-21 session).

In February 2020 Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, described the Government’s vision of a “truly global Britain” as having three pillars:

The first pillar of our global Britain strategy will be to continue to prove that we are the best possible allies, partners and friends with our European neighbours.

[…]

The next pillar of our global Britain strategy will be the UK’s role as an energetic champion of free and open trade

[…]

Finally, the third pillar of our global Britain will be the UK as an even stronger force for good in the world.

The Government is expected to expand upon these themes, and how it intends to put them into practice, in the forthcoming integrated review. The integrated security, defence and foreign policy review will cover “all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development[3] and is expected to be completed early this year.

Context

The UK’s departure from the European Union has inevitably prompted much commentary and thinking about the UK’s place in the world. But it is far from the only issue driving this debate.

The creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in September 2020 focused attention the UK’s soft power and use of development aid. The Chancellor’s Spending Review announcement of a reduction in the overseas aid budget did little to dampen concerns about this Government’s commitment to development spending.  

The UK’s relationship with the United States under a new President and ongoing tensions with China over Hong Kong are two obvious topics. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on international relations and the UK’s finances is still to be fully understood. The Government’s call for evidence for the integrated review also identified some other key trends and drivers of change:

  • a shift in the international order, marked by intensifying great power competition and a shift in the world’s economic centre of gravity towards Asia
  • the increasingly tangible effects of climate change
  • an increasingly complex global economic context
  • increasing instability and challenges to global governance.

The threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability remains ever-present. While the use of technology by both state and non-state actors pre-occupies those in the national security and defence fields.

The UK holds the Presidency of the G7 this year, for the first time since 2013. In November Glasgow will host the UN climate change conference COP26.

Many of these topics are discussed in Commons Library paper The Integrated Review: a look ahead to the Government’s review, November 2020.

The UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement

Dominic Raab said in February that the “first pillar” of Global Britain would be good relations with European neighbours. But the UK’s foreign policy relationship with the EU will not be as close as some expected.

Following the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, the UK is no longer party to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Political Declaration (PD) on the future UK-EU relationship, agreed by the UK and EU alongside the Withdrawal Agreement in October 2019, indicated that a future relations agreement would cover co-operation in foreign policy and defence. The EU’s negotiating directives and its draft treaty text tabled in March included proposals for treaty provisions covering these areas. However, before the launch of negotiations, the UK Government indicated that it did not view co-operation in foreign policy and defence as requiring a treaty framework, and this was not covered by the negotiations.

The Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) announced on 24 December did not make any provision for institutionalised co-operation in foreign affairs and defence. The preamble, however, referred to the two parties’ recognition of “the importance of global co-operation to address issues of shared interest”. The Common Provisions of the TCA also refer to a number of common principles with an international dimension. These include:

  • The principles of democracy, the rule and law and respect for human rights (including respects for various international human rights’ instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights);
  • The fight against climate change, and commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change in particular;
  • Countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  • Implementing obligations to counter the illicit trade in conventional weapons;
  • Co-operation to combat acts of terrorism in accordance with international law;
  • Global co-operation on issues of shared economic, environmental and social interest, including the two parties endeavouring to co-operate on global issues and to co-ordinate positions in multilateral organisations including the United Nations, the G7, G20, OECD, IMF, World Bank and WTO.

The Agreement also defines the first three points as “essential elements of the partnership” (Article COMPROV.12) and includes a fast-track procedure to terminate or suspend the Agreement or parts of it, where one party feels that there has been a serious failure by the other to uphold these principles (Article INST.35).

See Commons Library briefing 9106, The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement: summary and implementation.

New Trade Agreements

The second of Dominic Raab’s pillars of Global Britain involves championing free trade; so far the main activity has been to replace EU trade agreements with almost identical UK bilateral agreements.

The Government has since 2018 been negotiating replacement agreements for the international agreements it was previously party to as a Member State of the EU. These ceased to apply to the UK at the end of the transition period. In 2019, the Government released a list of international agreements across different policy areas that it was seeking to replace EU agreements.[4] These included trade agreements covering more than 70 countries. By the end of the transition period, replacement trade agreements covering 60 countries were in place with three more pending, two covered by declarations attached to the TCA[5] and six others still being discussed.[6]

Now that it is no longer a member of the EU customs union, the UK is also able to negotiate free trade agreements with new partners. It has already begun negotiations with the USA, Australia and New Zealand and has indicated its interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) comprising 11 Pacific Rim countries. The incoming Biden administration in the USA has indicated that a trade deal with the UK will not be an immediate priority.

 

[1]    Gov.uk has a collection of speeches and articles under the term Global Britain

[2]    “Global Britain”, Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 780 2017-19, 12 March 2018, para 1

[3]    Queen’s Speech, December 2019

[4]    The Government also provided updates in negotiating the listed agreements, but stopped doing so in May 2020 for the non-trade agreements. An indication of progress on completing these treaties is however provided by the Parliament Treaty Tracker for treaties laid before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

[5]    Andorra and San Marino which are both in a customs union with the EU.

[6]    See also Peter Ungphakorn, The UK’s rolled-over deals after the Brexit transition, 4 January 2020


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