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Where is the EU in ‘Global Britain’?

Published 21 Apr 2021

Rachel Bell MacDonald


For a document cited to be the most significant update to British foreign and security policy since the end of the Cold War, the recently published Integrated Review pays scarce attention to Britain’s trickiest, and most important relationship, that of the European Union (EU). Indeed, as Boris looks to propel his vision of ‘Global Britain’ onto far flung corners of the globe, particularly the Indo-Pacific, it seems there is little room left for its closest neighbour in this agenda. Ultimately, this purposive blind spot reflects a contradiction in this vision, whereby the dreams of ‘Global Britain’ may well be stymied at the outset by Britain’s inability to get its most critical relationship right.   

In laying out a ‘new chapter’ in British history, the Integrated Review attempts to reorient post-Brexit Britain in the international system. Unencumbered by EU bureaucracy and decision making, the mantra is that Britain can act with speed and agility in the face of a changing international environment, playing its role as problem-solver and burden-sharer. Central to the changing international environment is, of course, the rise of China and growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, lending to Britain’s ‘tilt’ to the region. Clearly written for the eyes of Biden’s America, China is deemed a ‘systemic competitor’ presenting the ‘biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’ whilst the so often unrequited US-UK relationship is portrayed sentimentally, evoking a sense of yearning for the ‘special relationship’ of the past. While the Review makes a valiant pledge for constructive relationships with the EU and enduring security commitments to the continent, the overarching propensity is evident: Britain envisions a future devoid of the EU. Afterall, in the densely packed 100 pages of the Review, the EU occupies scarcely ten lines. To emphasise the lacuna further, Australia garners as many mentions as the ‘European Union’ in the review.

It is true, tensions between Britain and EU do complicate collaboration. Indeed, even pessimists must be surprised about the swiftness of decline in relations, with spats over COVID-19 vaccines and the Northern Ireland border far beyond ‘teething problems’. But beyond structural issues arising as a result of a nation that chose ‘hard Brexit’, it seems that within the murky British psyche, distancing itself from the European Union is a logical, even desirable strategy. With the EU charting a course of ‘strategic autonomy’ away from the US and some hints of geopolitical divergences between the two on issues like China, Boris surely spots a gap in the US orbit that lonely Brexited Britain is all too happy to fill. Britain’s willingness to anchor its geopolitical fate to the US, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, perhaps conjures images of a modern day Greece and Rome in certain British minds. Maybe Global Britain and engagement east of the Suez is a display of imperial nostalgia. For a country that voted to leave the EU, any of these explanations may be plausible.

Whatever the rationale driving EU irrelevance in plans for a ‘Global Britain’, it threatens to derail the whole agenda. Despite hopes that Britain alone can gain a seat at the table on a whole host of issues, the reality is that the EU will either beat Britain to it, or sit at the same table with a far louder voice. Take climate, which is designated Britain’s number one international priority. Admirable though this priority may be, and as impressive as Britain’s green energy sector is, the EU will remain the more significant actor in this regard. Without amiable relations with the world’s largest trading bloc, Boris’ plans for Britain’s green energy revolution that he articulated in this article for the Financial Times will be a shadow of what they could be if Britain is unable to export its innovations. The US, too, is likely to look towards the EU on a number of transatlantic issues before it looks to Britain, whose value in the alliance is diminished in the absence of its ability to influence EU decision making. Indeed, for a President who once described Boris as the ‘physical and emotional clone’ of his predecessor, a tarnished relationship where Britain comes second to the EU seems likely. Beyond the undeniable reality of the EU simply occupying a larger role on the international stage is the reputational damage to Britain wrought by the schism between the two. If Britain cannot solve it most important problem – its relationship with the EU – what hope is there for Britain to live up to its role as ‘a problem solving’ nation for the world?

And yet, Britain’s hosting of two summits this year, the G7 and COP26, present two timely opportunities to persuade naysayers about the veracity of ‘Global Britain’. But if Britain wants to be a globally oriented burden sharer and problem solver, it must first solve a problem of its own making. Indeed, Britain must recognise that its vision of ‘Global Britain’ is not a substitute for relations with the EU, but rather one that relies upon them.


Rachel Bell Macdonald is a third-year student at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies, majoring in Politics and International Relations. Rachel has been a recipient of several university awards, and recently presented her award-winning policy report on US-Taiwan relations to the US Consul General. She has previously interned at a consultancy firm, the Infrastructure Collaborative, where she focused on government relations and stakeholder engagement, as well as with her local State MP. Rachel hopes to pursue Honours in 2022. Her interests include Brexit, US-China relations and the changing dynamics of the international system.

Rachel is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.