UK foreign policy must diverge after Brexit

UK foreign policy must diverge after Brexit

Standing on the summit of Mount Carmel, overlooking Haifa docks last week, I was struck by a stream of giant container ships, bow to stern, streaming in and out of the Gulf of Acre into the Mediterranean like a giant, floating, steel conveyor belt. The UK’s stake in the conveyor belt leapt from £5.5 billion to £6.9 billion between 2016 and 2017, a full 25% increase in a single year. As the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev, put it, the figures demonstrate “the momentum behind our economic relationship. The hard work of business-people and entrepreneurs like all of you at UK Israel Business leaves me in no doubt that the Israel-UK partnership will continue to grow in the years ahead”.

Following these economic figures, comes the diplomacy. On Wednesday, London will be hosting Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu during his whistle-stop tour of European capitals in order to attempt to build diplomatic support for Israel’s position over Iran. This is in the light of Trump pulling out of the Iran agreement negotiated by Obama and supported by the EU. He arrives here via Berlin and Paris.

The likelihood is that he will be greeted by the traditional rent-a-mob on Whitehall and no amount of shroud waving on the BBC and sections of the traditional media. Jeremy Corbyn will probably not be on his must-see list.

For Brexiteers, however, it may be a useful exercise in looking at what a post-Brexit foreign policy could look like. The current foreign policy is constrained by a combination of the principle of ‘Enhanced Co-operation’ and the European Treaty which states clearly that the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy covers ‘all areas of foreign and security policy’. Including, of course, the UK’s policy towards Israel, the Middle East and Iran. Up until now, the UK’s response to Trump’s pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal has been to send out Boris onto the American networks to nil effect and to publicly support the Iran deal as ‘vitally important’.

However, at the beginning of May, Netanyahu revealed intelligence that he claims that proves that Iran had lied and had continued lying about the purposes of its uranium enrichment programme, and that the Iran deal has had no impact on the ability of Iran to develop ballistic missile delivery systems. This visit must be seen in the light of his announcement at the time that he was planning on speaking to the three European signatories to the deal. The supposition is that he will be bringing with him the intelligence to show that Iran has not merely been lying about its programme in a historical sense, but that it is continuing to do so in its nuclear weapons programme. Trump, as he has shown over North Korea, will act in defence of what he perceives to be US allies.

This will present the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office with a dilemma. Despite being tied through EU treaty obligations to a common EU stance on the issue, she and they realise that it is now less than 300 days before the UK formally leaves the EU and at that point what must take priority is not a perceived common EU foreign policy agenda, but one that suits the UK, and promotes and protects UK interests in the world.

In a post-Brexit Britain, those interests could easily diverge from those of our continental friends. Currently, the UK is trading about £860m per annum with Iran. France and Germany have far greater balance sheets at £4bn and £3bn respectively, with massive growth in projects via oil and in particular car production. Meanwhile, their trade with Israel amounts to approx £1bn and £5bn, again mostly cars.

It is clear that economics rather than security is what is driving continental diplomatic positioning. Though there are some squeaks of panic from Total, Renault and Citroen in particular since Trump has announced that the US will extend his Iranian sanctions decision to those companies that trade with Iran, it is expected that the rump EU will stick with the current deal. The question is, is Iran a greater ally for the EU than the US? To ask the question must be to answer it, but because of the EU’s inability to see foreign affairs outside the prism of direct competition with America, its decisions seem screwball.

Israel is, apart from an increasingly divergent Turkey under its increasingly unstable and messianic leader Erdogan, the closest thing to an ally the UK has in the Levantine Middle East. Israel is according to the UN’s Human Development index the 19th rated country in the world, ahead of 20 EU member states. This Friday 200,000 people will be thronging the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate Pride week. This is the culture – advanced, democratic, tolerant and innovative – that we could be supporting, yet instead we find ourselves, tied as we are to a Foreign Office/EU policy perspective, preferring to maintain belief in a broken Iran deal, linked to a country that beats women in the streets, murders LGBT* citizens and exports terror throughout its region.

For the UK, as we leave the EU, the decision becomes stark: should we strengthen our relations with Israel and the US, both economically and diplomatically, or should we remain beholden to our former colleagues in the EU, whose interests seem to be rapidly diverging from our own?

UK foreign policy must diverge after Brexit - Netanyahu's visit offers an opportunity