Since the British public voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, government ministers and departments have repeatedly stated that this decision does not mean that the UK is withdrawing from world affairs or becoming more isolationist. Instead, the Government has signalled its intention to ensure that the UK remains an active player on the global stage after Brexit.
This intention has morphed into a 'Global Britain' policy. This policy has repeatedly been articulated by the Prime Minister in a number of important speeches and interventions. Yet, to date there has been little explanation of what the policy means in practical terms.
This lack of detail was highlighted last week by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in their latest report. The report criticised the Government for using a “slogan instead of a policy” and called on the Prime Minister to establish “a clear strategy to shape our actions”. Without such a strategy, the Committee warned that Britain risks damaging its reputation overseas and eroding support for a global outlook at home.
Through our own research and reports, Bright Blue has explored a number of ways the UK Government can ensure Britain remains an outward-looking nation after Brexit.
Britain is one of the leading pioneers of human rights protections. Indeed, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) - one of the foremost pieces of international human rights legislation - was based, in part, on British common law, and British lawyers were integral to its drafting.
Britain has also long been an important trading nation. In the nineteenth century, British ships were crucial to growing trade across the world. Britain has continued this tradition and remains, today, one of the world’s ten largest exporters despite its relatively small population.
We believe these two principles, of free trade and human rights, should be at the centre of the UK Government’s ‘global Britain’ strategy. There are a number of different policies we believe that the UK could adopt in these areas which would amount to the “clear strategy” that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has called for.
The EU and UK have recently agreed a transition deal which will allow the UK to sign trade deals after March 2019. These deals offer an important opportunity for the UK to increase prosperity both in the UK and abroad. But they also offer the UK Government an opportunity to improve human rights around the world.
The World Trade Organisation estimates that 75% of trade deals now include some kind of human rights provisions. The Department for International Trade should ensure our trade deals, where possible, include obligations to improve human rights in the partner countries.
While the UK may not always be able to demand such obligations in trade deals, it should, wherever possible, use its size and influence to continue Britain’s proud history as a one of the foremost exporters of human rights.
The Prime Minister has recently suggested that Britain will continue to participate in certain EU agencies where there is mutual benefit. One such agency, the European Development Fund, should continue to receive UK funding on a conditional basis. The UK Government’s own research suggests that the fund is very effective in delivering aid to African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Britain should recognise this and continue to work with its European partners to improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest.
The UK should also recognise how its international development budget can increase human rights across the world. The Magna Carta Fund is the Foreign Office’s dedicated strategic fund supporting its global human rights and democracy work. The Fund aims to further British interests overseas by tackling the root causes of human rights violations, strengthening institutions and governance, promoting and protecting human rights, and supporting democracy and the rule of law.
Yet, the fund has a relatively small budget at around £10 million per year. To increase Britain’s human rights work, after Brexit, the Department for International Development should match the funding provided by the Foreign Office to the fund each year
Finally, Britain should continue to participate fully in the international justice system. The UK must remain a signatory to the ECHR. The convention is, of course, based, in part, on British law. But our presences as a signatory also signals to countries around the world that we take human rights abuses seriously. Withdrawal would provide more authoritarian countries, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with the political space to similarly withdraw their own countries.
The Government should also increase our financial contributions to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is responsible for prosecuting people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crime. But, it has repeatedly reported that it is underfunded. Britain should take the lead, and increase our contributions unilaterally.
The UK Government is right to state that Britain should remain an active player on the global stage after Brexit. But, so far, it has offered little details on what this entails. Through future trade deals, our aid budget, and through international justice, the Government could ensure Britain continues to punch above its weight as a global influencer.
James Dobson is a senior researcher at Bright Blue