LONDON — The looming departure of Britain from the European Union will have a significant effect on the country’s influence as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Even with a possible delay in the final Brexit move, Britain will have to navigate the 15-member Council in a new way that could increasingly raise questions about its legitimate role and what values it will offer to the UN.
We have explored Britain’s relationship with the UN after Brexit in a recent report — drawing on research interviews with more than two dozen British officials and UN diplomats — and have found numerous challenges for the country as it finds its new place in the world. The report was published by the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom, and the research was funded by the British Academy.
Britain’s permanent seat in the Security Council is not immediately threatened, as it would need to consent to its own removal. But how will the country be perceived and behave in its next phase of statehood? Will Britain, for example, join with other European nations on the Council, as it does now at certain media presentations, on such matters as Ukraine and the Russian presence there?
Currently, Britain is one of the most activist countries in the Security Council. Most issues before the body have a lead-state or “penholder,” which takes responsibility for drafting all decisions on a given topic, as well as other roles, such as speaking first in the Council chamber and leading visiting missions. In theory, this leadership position could be a division of labor, but in practice the vast majority of penholding is done by the P3 (Britain, the United States and France), and in 2019, Britain is penholder for about one-third of issues on the Council’s agenda.
This dominance is often viewed as exclusionary by the 10 elected members, who among them are penholder for about a fifth of issues this year. One recommendation in our report is that Britain engage in more penholding with elected members, and it is encouraging to note that this year, Britain is penholding with Germany on Darfur and on Libyan sanctions.
Our report also highlighted that Britain is generally viewed as having stronger diplomatic skills in the Security Council than it does in the General Assembly, which encompasses all 193 members of the UN. This sentiment was also expressed at a Select Committee hearing on Global Britain; Richard Gowan, an independent analyst on the UN, based in New York, argued that “the UK has invested too little in relationships at the General Assembly in recent years.”
Many of our interviewees stressed that Britain’s commitment to use 0.7 percent of gross national income as official development assistance was critical to the country’s reputation at the UN. One interviewee explained that without this investment, Britain’s reputation would be in “free fall.”
In 2018, the country was one of only six nations to reach the 0.7 percent commitment. As another interviewee said, “For 70 percent of the members, the UN is about development,” so this amount generates considerable political capital for Britain.
While the government has stated that its policy of Global Britain “is already backed by substance” — including a recently announced Global Britain Board — our research suggests that this perception is not shared by Britain’s diplomatic partners. Exactly what is different about Global Britain is unclear. As Sir Simon Fraser, a former permanent under secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explained to us, “We’re going to end up wanting to be pretty much where we are now on international affairs: an active influential voice.”
When we interviewed diplomats based in New York on what Global Britain means, we were told it was “ambiguous,” that “other countries don’t really talk about it much” and that it was a slogan that was “much more about the domestic audience.” These comments clearly demonstrate that the British government has more to do to translate this policy into a meaningful strategy abroad.
Other challenges arise directly from Britain exiting the European Union. As Sir John Sawers, the former head of M16, the British intelligence agency, explained, Brexit means “the UK would suffer ‘a double loss’ at the UN since it would not be able to shape the influential common EU policy in New York or be able to rely on EU support at the General Assembly.”
This situation poses challenges for Britain on Somalia, where it has used its dual roles to support the African Union mission, Amisom, in the Security Council and to lobby Europe to provide most of the funding for this operation.
Exiting the European Union and renegotiating trade relationships around the world also poses challenges for Britain in prioritizing human rights when there are tensions between rights and trade. These tensions are already evident between Britain and Saudi Arabia, as Britain is one of the Saudis’ largest arms suppliers and the penholder on Yemen in the Security Council.
Interviewees highlighted that they already see Britain as more timid in relation to China and European Union countries in current and upcoming Brexit-related negotiations. Whether this timidity is real or not, it poses problems for the country because this is about how it is perceived by other nations. As a permanent-five member of the Council interviewee explained to us, “All interactions [with the UK] are seen through a Brexit lens.”
Despite these challenges for Britain in the UN, the skill level of British diplomats in New York was clear from our research. There was a sense that smaller countries look up to Britain as an exemplar of diplomacy, especially in the Security Council. Foreign diplomats in New York said that Britain is “one of the most fair players” and that they “try to build consensus.”
Britain’s permanent mission in New York was also described by a fellow permanent-five member as “top of the league.” (The British mission to the UN is led by Ambassador Karen Pierce.)
When we asked foreign diplomats about the reputational effects of Brexit specifically, however, the answers were bleak. One diplomat described it as “a historic mistake” and that “the UK’s reputation as a competent and effective international actor has been weakened.”
Another said, “I can feel the UK’s weight in the Security Council dwindling.” Yet another diplomat said, “One of the risky things about Brexit is the inconsistency of the mood, and to be effective in the Security Council is a mix of being confident, consistent, reliable.”
The impacts of Brexit for Britain go beyond the immediate challenges in the London-Brussels relationship. It raises questions about what role Britain will play in UN negotiations and how active it will be on human-rights issues in the future.