Better off without Britain? The UK and European foreign policy

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Since writing an article  (originally for a German audience) recently about the “British question – that is, the question of whether the UK might leave the European Union – I’ve had several interesting conversations with colleagues and other people about what a British withdrawal from the EU might mean for European power in the world. While I would argue that an EU without the UK would be significantly weaker than one with the UK in it, others have argued that the EU might actually be better off in foreign-policy terms if the UK were to leave. The UK, they argue, actually undermines the development of a coherent, effective European foreign policy (which ECFR aims to promote).

A useful way to think about this may in the terms Joe Nye uses in his most recent book The Future of Power. In particular, Nye distinguishes between power resources and power conversion. Many people simply equate power with resources (economic, political, diplomatic) but neglect the way those resources are “converted” into strategies that produce the outcomes you want – in particular, to coerce or persuade others to do what you want them to do. This distinction is particularly relevant to the EU, which has huge resources (a bigger population and economy than the US, the world’s second-biggest military, etc.) but struggles to actually deploy them effectively to achieve its objectives. Thus the EU has what Nye calls a limited “power-conversion capability”.

Nye’s framework can help us understand the possible implications of a British withdrawal more clearly and precisely. An EU without the UK would of course have fewer resources. In particular, it would lose one of its biggest economies, perhaps its best military, and significant diplomatic resources (including a seat on the United Nations Security Council). However, a British withdrawal could actually help the EU improve its power-conversion capability. In particular, without British obstructionism, it might be able integrate its foreign policy more quickly and make more effective use of the EEAS, the new European diplomatic service created by the Lisbon Treaty. (In the introduction to the last European Foreign Policy Scorecard, we said that the UK waged a “diplomatic guerilla campaign” against the EEAS in 2011.)

So the question is whether the price for this possible improvement in Europe’s power-conversion capability – a huge loss of resources and in particular hard-power resources – would be worth it in the context of a world dominated by realist powers such as China. Nye argues that the most effective power-conversion strategies are ones that “combine hard and soft power resources successfully in different contexts”. The EU particularly struggles to convert its hard-power resources (apart from on trade issues, where it is relatively effective). While an EU without the UK might be better at doing so, it would have far fewer hard-power resources to convert in the first place. It seems to me that an EU without the UK would therefore be one that relies on soft power even more than it already does.

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