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LONDON — Forget Global Britain. It’s time for Euro-Britain.
Even as the United Kingdom readies itself to host the G7 group of nations — an event it has framed as an international comeback unshackled from the European Union — experts warn that London’s efforts would be best spent nearer to home.
While the headlines have focused on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promises of an “Indo-Pacific tilt” — including trade talks with Australia and India and plans to deploy an aircraft carrier on a tour of four Asian countries — officials are quietly working to buttress relations with the U.K.’s traditional partners on the other side of the English Channel.
“The headlines have stressed the tilt, but ‘tilt’ is quite a weak noun,” is how Simon McDonald, until recently the top civil servant in Britain’s Foreign Office, put it in a recent interview with the UK in a Changing Europe think tank.
An “integrated review” of Britain’s foreign and defense policy earlier this year highlighted the twin goals of trade and security, and it’s with the EU, the United States and NATO that those are most closely aligned, according to officials interviewed by POLITICO.
“The heart of the Integrated Review is still the Euro-Atlantic area. That, I think, is a good thing,” said McDonald, who was permanent undersecretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until September 2020. “There’s a lot about France, quite a lot about Germany, and so I think it’s less radical than some of the surrounding publicity,” he added.
‘Put down the flags’
Behind Johnson’s rhetoric of the U.K. as a “maritime trading nation” and high-profile spats between London and Paris over fishing rights, ministers and diplomats are reaching out to allies in Europe to renew and affirm bonds.
Relations with the EU have been frayed by the divorce negotiations and the U.K.’s refusal to clearly codify a post-Brexit security relationship, said Georgina Wright, head of the Institut Montaigne think tank’s Europe Program. But both sides know the importance of the defense partnership, which includes bilateral ties as well as coordination through NATO.
“The U.K. and France have one of the closest defense relationships in the world,” Wright said. “At a granular level there’s a lot of cooperation between the armies.”
When it comes to trade and economic relations, work is also underway. The U.K. has upgraded the seniority of its staff at many of its embassies in Europe, beefing up its training in economic diplomacy — using tools like commercial or investment relationships to achieve strategic aims. Greg Hands, the U.K. minister of state for trade policy, has also been busy trying to make nice with the EU.
Benedetto Della Vedova, the Italian undersecretary for foreign affairs, told POLITICO last month that the country was hoping to secure a bilateral deal with Britain covering areas such as defense and investment.
There’s no question among British officials and diplomats that a huge lobbying effort will be required to keep a foot in the door of the EU’s economic security effort, as Britain’s struggle to stay part of sensitive EU R&D projects has laid bare.
“Trade and security as twin aims make a great deal of sense when it comes to EU partners, and the U.S., less so elsewhere,” a senior British official told POLITICO.
“It’s time to be seen to put down the flags and pick up the phones,” the official added. “For all the talk of ships, a quiet word in the right ear at the right time is what we’re good at.”
The trouble with Indo-Pacific tilt is that trade and security don’t always come in tandem; indeed, they’re sometimes in opposition.
Potential trade agreements with Australia and India, for example, are more about security than economics, said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
“India’s still quite protectionist in many ways,” he said. “While there’s still scope for collaboration on the security and defense side, on the trade side there’s a lot of happy talk but not a lot of substance.”
The planned visit by the aircraft carrier doesn’t change that. “I’m a real skeptic of the value of military deployments of this sort providing a boost to exports or indeed to foreign investment,” Chambers said. “In market economies, I just don’t see purchasers being wooed by this. It will be about the competitive value of our products.”
For London, the attractiveness of a deal with Australia is less about the raw economic benefits than about positioning the U.K. as a global player, said a senior trade official. A desire to be seen to make a success of Brexit has put the pace of negotiations in opposition to securing clear economic wins, the official added.
Perhaps the one place where London’s trade and security ambitions are most clearly opposed is with its relations with Beijing. While China was long seen by many in the U.K. as a land of economic opportunity, that perception has shifted as crackdowns in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang have highlighted the country’s darker sides.
China is now widely seen in the U.K. as less of an opportunity for trade than a risk to security. Indeed, concerns about Beijing — more than a desire to distance the country from Europe — are the main driver of Johnson’s Indo-Pacific tilt.
The pivot hasn’t entirely been successful. Britain’s share of imports from China has risen even as it has fallen from EU member states such as Germany, official data suggests.
The trouble for London is that, while concern about China is also rising in Paris and Berlin, the U.K. is no longer as well-positioned as it once was to determine European policy toward Beijing.
The U.K. used to, in large part, steer the EU’s approach to the Asian superpower, making it a key power broker in the U.S.’s eyes, a U.S. diplomat said. That power is lessened post-Brexit.
“Brits used to be in the room,” the diplomat said. “Now they’re trying to listen from the corridor. Thing is, lots of us can do that.”
As Johnson meets this week with the leaders of the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and the European Union, the question of how to deal with China is likely to provide much of the subtext of the G7 summit.
The U.K. has been trying to balance being open to investment with allowing the wrong kind of money in.
One example of this effort is the National Security and Investment Bill (NSIB), which is meant to stop purchasing of new, often technology-led companies, by regimes or interests that might seek to do the U.K. harm.
The trick for the U.K. will be to find ways to protect British interests while remaining attractive to foreign investors, said Andy Burwell, director for international trade and investment at business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
“I think we’re at the start of a journey, everyone is,” said Burwell.
Off the record, many officials note the NSIB is largely aimed at some Chinese activity. The Asian power is, after all, a big reason behind the Indo-Pacific tilt that the U.K, along with European players like Brussels, France and Germany are starting to undertake. China is also one of the drivers behind the EU’s broader attempts at “strategic autonomy.”
The balance between trade and security is also likely to feature during trade talks at the G7.
Britain has been seeking to strike close alignment with Japan and the U.S. on reforming the World Trade Organization to push back against Chinese practices like state subsidies.
“There’s two overarching themes for the [G7] trade track,” said Marianne Schneider-Petsinger, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank. “The first one [is] free and fair trade, and the other one is modernizing trade rules so the security element is pretty much pushed to the sidelines.”
“I think that’s perhaps a missed opportunity, particularly when you’re looking at supply chain security and supply chains resilient where trade and security are so intrinsically linked,” she added.
Talks on the subject are likely to continue after the G7, as the EU and US hold a joint summit ahead of a gathering of NATO leaders — where the Euro-Atlantic alliance will be on center stage.
This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service Pro Trade. From transatlantic trade wars to the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU and rest of the world, Pro Trade gives you the insight you need to plan your next move. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.