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Brexit Britain at the United Nations

Article by Richard Gowan

December 16, 2020

Brexit Britain at the United Nations

Following the 2016 Brexit referendum, successive governments have been keen to emphasise that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is not a rejection of international institutions and cooperation more broadly. Advocates of ‘Global Britain’ have highlighted UK’s role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and as an influential player in the UN more generally, as an example of London’s leadership role in multilateralism. This contribution discusses and tries to answer some of the key questions about the UK’s role at the UN.


How has the UK performed at the UN in the eleven months since Brexit?

The most striking feature of UK diplomacy in New York this year has been the high degree of continuity with Britain’s approach to the UN prior to Brexit. There has been quite a lot of speculation that, once outside the EU, the UK would shift much closer to the Americans on many issues. But instead we have seen the UK stay quite close to its former EU partners, especially France and Germany in the ‘E3’ format. This was particularly clear in the summer, when the US attempted to re-impose UN sanctions on Iran, basing its approach on a disputed reading of the 2015 nuclear deal. At the start of the year, European officials were quite worried that the UK would support the American approach. But the British were very firm in standing with the E3 and rejecting the US approach, which ran out of steam quickly.


The UK has also had a notably good relationship with Germany in the Security Council. The Germans were on the Council for a two-year term starting in January 2019, and I think both Berlin and London were keen to show they would keep working together through Brexit. To emphasise that, they agreed to act as co-leads in the Council on Libya and Sudan, and their day-to-day cooperation seems to have been very good. Ironically, the Germans have actually found it harder to coordinate with the French, who worry that Berlin wants them to sacrifice their national privileges as a permanent council member, and establish an EU Council seat.


More generally, European diplomats in New York say that they have been pleasantly surprised by how well relations with the UK have turned out to date. The British are outside EU formal coordination structures, but there is a lot of quiet sharing of information and ideas. Obviously, it helps that British diplomats and their counterparts from the EU27 have personal ties that pre-date Brexit, so everybody has a good idea who to call and where people stand on specific issues. It is possible that these relationships will weaken with time, as the current generation of European diplomats in New York move on. But overall, the UK and the EU27 have common priorities on most UN issues, whether its finances or human rights, so it’s natural to stay close.


One European diplomat told me that he thought COVID had also had an impact on the UK’s options, as UN missions have spent a lot of the year just trying to keep the wheels of diplomacy turning, and there has not been much space for radical new policies. Very few officials in London and other capitals have had the bandwidth to propose new initiatives at the UN, except on COVID itself. And on COVID itself, the UK has been among the leaders of the multilateral response to the crisis – along with France and the EU institutions – and has again taken a very different approach to the Trump administration’s unilateralist stances.


How has the UK worked with other groups, such as CANZ (Canada, Australia and New Zealand)?

UK diplomats had good relations with their counterparts from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and that seems to have continued. But I can only think of one case in which the UK prominently adopted a ‘CANZ plus UK’ identity in UN debates in 2020, and that involved negotiations on a declaration to celebrate the UN’s seventy-fifth anniversary in the summer.


Sweden and Qatar has led the process of drafting this declaration – a big non-binding commitment to multilateralism—and at the last moment the UK blocked consensus on the document because China wanted to include some language based on ‘Xi Jinping thought’ in the text. The CANZ countries and US (in other words the Five Eyes intelligence community) backed the British position, but the EU did not. This was once case where European diplomats noted that the British were adopting a firmer line than they might have done before Brexit, although in the end a compromise was found and it all proved to be a bit of a flash in the pan.


More broadly though, I don’t see the UK shifting away from its old EU partners to an alternative bloc with CANZ at the UN. To be honest, it is not an idea that makes sense in the UN context for the simple reason that eight or nine times out of ten the UK, CANZ and EU are on roughly the same page on policy problems in New York. So it’s not a meaningful distinction.


How does China’s power at the UN play into UK calculations in New York?

China has gained a lot of leverage at the UN in the last five years in particular, and Western countries (and in fact many non-Western countries too) are worried about the spread of its influence. After Brexit, some UN watchers thought that the British would have to tread softly with the Chinese for trade reasons. But British officials have been prominent in criticising Beijing for its treatment of the Uighurs and, unsurprisingly, Hong Kong in UN forums. As the story about the UN75 declaration suggests, the UK and Europeans sometimes differ on how firm to be with Beijing but most EU members have been tough over the Uighurs in particular.


That said, both the UK and most of its allies (including EU and CANZ members) felt that the Trump administration went too far in its attacks on China over COVID-19 this year. We saw this during the virtual high-level session of the UN General Assembly in September this year, when President Trump attacked China in fierce terms, but Boris Johnson gave quite a measured call for clarity about the origins of the pandemic, without mentioning China by name. Overall, I think UK diplomats want to establish that they can be firm with China in multilateral institutions, but also to avoid a ‘new Cold War’ logic by which everything that happens at the UN is framed as a zero-sum game between the US and China and their allies.


How will the arrival of the Biden administration affect the UK’s positon at the UN?

The Biden administration is good news for the UK in the multilateral sphere. It validates the UK decision to stand up to Trump over Iran alongside the E3, for example, and it is clear that the US is going to want the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow next year to be a big success. It is not clear how Biden will approach the Chinese at the UN – although he is likely to be quite a bit subtler than Trump has been – but overall the UK and US should get along nicely.


In a funny way, having Biden in the White House could actually complicate UK-EU relations at the UN. On a lot of topics in 2020, Trump’s lines at the UN were so outrageous that it was only common sense for the UK to align with the EU. With Biden in office, the US is likely to be much less disruptive, but the British may also feel more of a pull to stand with the Americans in those cases where there are transatlantic divergences. That said, the UK has always tried to stay as close as it can to the US in the UN as it can, so this is not exactly new.


Will the UK decision to revoke its commitment of 0.7% of GNI to aid affect its standing at the UN?

The UK decision on 0.7 per cent will come back to bite it in UN debates. It gives diplomats from developing countries (and indeed big non-Western UN members like China and India) an easy line of attack in debates about economic issues. That said, I suspect that we will sadly see a lot of major aid donors having to make similar choices so the UK won’t be alone in this.


I argued after Brexit that the UK should stick with the 0.7 per cent goal as a flagship example of its commitment to multilateralism, and I am sorry it has slipped. I think that London can try to compensate for that by doubling down on other areas of cooperation, like making COP26 work out.  Overall, I have been impressed by the way the UK has navigated a difficult diplomatic 11 months at the UN since Brexit, but there are still a lot of challenges ahead.


Richard Gowan is the New York-based UN Director for the International Crisis Group and a former researcher at the Foreign Policy Centre, works closely with Security Council members and UN officials. In this interview contribution, he gives a personal perspective on the UK-UN relationship in 2020.


Image by FCDO under (CC).

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