Reversing ‘strategic shrinkage’

At a crucial stage in the renegotiation phase, Cameron is choosing foreign policy to demonstrate the UK’s worth to the EU

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On Wednesday 2 December, after a 10 hour discussion, the British parliament voted to extend air strikes against ISIS in Iraq to Syria. With a majority of 174 votes, including from some Labour MPs, Cameron’s proposal comfortably won the vote. Less than two years ago, in August 2013, Cameron had been defeated in a vote on supporting US-led strikes in Syria.

The week before, the austerity–addicted Conservative government released a Strategic Defence and Security Review which not only guarantees that it will maintain spending of 2 percent of GDP on defence, and 0.7 percent on oversee development. Against all expectations it has also protected the budget of British diplomacy and foreign office and even increased spending on the BBC World Service.

And shortly before that, a funny thing happened on the way to the EU-Turkey summit. Britain was at the front of the contributors’ queue – before the demand had even gone out, it was offering a contribution of over €400 Million (c. £280 Million), almost as much as the entire contribution from the EU budget. This helped to seal the deal between the EU and Turkey according to which, for an ‘initial’ €3 billion (£2.11bn) in EU aid for the Syrian refugees, the country promises to help limit the number of refugees that arrive at Europe’s borders.  

To outside observers, these three decisions seem unrelated to the Brexit debate – which, amidst all the worlds’ turmoil, increasingly appears as not too pressing anyway. But behind the scenes, Britain is using these issues to make a point with its EU partners.

The UK is not a member of Schengen, it has opted-out of euro membership and enjoys a special system of how the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU applies to its national law. But in one EU policy area, the UK can play an outsized role: foreign policy and defence. It has one of the largest network of global diplomatic missions, the highest level of development spending, seats on the UN Security Council, G7, and G20, and together with France is Europe’s foremost military power.

But until recently the talk about the UK was of strategic shrinkage. There is no UK presence in the Normandy format (which brings together representatives from Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France), the British parliament voted to opt-out of the military strikes in Syria, and Britain refused to take part in the quotas on the refugee crisis. Its political debates were as much about splendid isolation as about “punching above its weight” in the world.

It is therefore interesting that at this stage at the renegotiation Cameron is choosing foreign policy to demonstrate the UK’s worth to the EU. Through its support of the Turkey deal, Cameron not only does a favour to Angela Merkel in her hour of need. He is showing a willingness to take part in common EU solutions. The Syria decision helps to show solidarity with France while the SDSR shows that Britain can be world-class in fields other than getting its money back. The overall message that Cameron is trying to convey is clear: it is worth keeping Britain in the EU. 

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

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