Britain is still a leader in European foreign policy

In spite of the rising tide of anti-European rhetoric, the UK’s diplomats are still cooperating with Europe and driving foreign policy initiatives within the EU framework.

The United Kingdom is now well into the 100-day countdown to the general election on 7 May 2015. The election will be pivotal in terms of the UK’s adaptation to the end of a two-party system and its learning to live with coalition governments as a norm. And it will be critical in terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Anti-European sentiment appeared to be on the rise in the UK in the last year; 2014 was most certainly a good year for the Eurosceptic UKIP party, which won the most seats in the European Parliament elections in May and then went on to gain two seats in the House of Commons in October and November. Within the feverish national debate on the value of EU membership for the UK, nobody at all is arguing that the status quo is win-win or that it would benefit all sides to carry on the current give and take with other EU states.

But it seems that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office diplomats did not get the memo – or perhaps they are the only ones that did. ECFR’s Scorecard 2015 shows that with regard to foreign policy, the UK remains at the centre of European decision-making. This year, it shares second place with Sweden. The Scorecard judges that the UK led on 11 foreign policy issues within the EU in 2014, the same number as in 2013, and it was a “slacker” once fewer than in 2013. Presumably, the choice to maintain its strong position in European foreign policy is quietly being taken because those most involved recognise that the UK’s voice on the world stage is best amplified by being part of the European collective.

Some of the areas on which the UK showed leadership, such as the military response to the Islamic State, were undoubtedly unilateral. However, on others, such as pushing for a positive conclusion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations and supporting sanctions on Russia despite the likely impact on the City, London appeared to acknowledge that there are areas in which the UK has far more clout as part of the EU than it does alone. This runs directly counter to the government-level rhetoric on avoiding the constraints of European cooperation.

Of course, the government-level anti-European hyperbole itself diminishes the UK’s role in the EU. To some extent, the keenness of the UK’s diplomats to cooperate with other member states might be explained as an effort to compensate for the damage done by the political mudslinging on Europe from the highest levels of the UK government (for example, the freedom of movement debate instigated by David Cameron in autumn 2014). Sometimes, the rhetoric has had serious results. The UK’s high-profile announcement in October that it would not take part in future search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, in part because of what it described as an unintended “pull factor’’ created by trying to save lives of migrants from wrecked ships, had far-reaching consequences in terms of solidarity for the immigrants desperate enough to make the crossing as well as of support for southern EU states on the frontline of the crisis.

Still, for those who hope (perhaps in vain) to see decisions on Britain’s European future based on facts rather than party-political point-scoring, it is reassuring to find that there is a lot more sanity in the granular level of detail exposed in ECFR’s Scorecard 2015 than the debate in the UK media might lead us to believe. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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