UK risks losing global influence if it quits single market, says senior civil servant
The UKs global diplomatic and security influence is at risk if it cuts itself off from the single market and continues to denigrate foreigners, a former civil servant has warned.
Sir Simon Fraser, who was permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office until last year, said Britains position near or at the top diplomatic table was at stake after the vote to leave the European Union.
He said: There is already evidence of potential self-harm in our behaviour to foreign people: the reported spike in hate crime, the insensitive comments of some British politicians, and the shocking press coverage of the legal judgment on article 50.
I hope our political leaders will show more skill and wisdom in the next chapter of our European relationships than over the last decade, which was strewn with diplomatic errors and misjudgments.
Speaking on Monday night at Kings College, London, Fraser said it was inevitable that Brexit would diminish UK influence overseas. No matter how well we manage the process and however good the assets we have, structurally it is going to be much more difficult to exert global influence after Brexit, he said.
Leaving the European Union will be the biggest shock to our method of international influencing and the biggest structural change to our place in the world since the end of world war two and the end of empire.
The Brexit vote in June has been blamed for a rise in race-hate crimes, with more than 2,300 offences in London recorded in the 38 days after the referendum, compared with 1,400 in the 38 days before the vote.
A survey by the Guardian found that European embassies in Britain have logged dozens of incidents of suspected hate crime and abuse against their citizens since the referendum. The vast majority of incidents involved eastern Europeans, with more attacks against Poles than all other nationalities combined.
Fraser, who is a specialist in the Middle East and European trade, was the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary for William Hague and Philip Hammond between 2010 and 2015.
He is concerned that Theresa Mays cabinet is insufficiently aware of the way in which European opinion is hardening against the UK, and fears that the chances of reaching a rational outcome with the EU on a future relationship are being damaged by UK rhetoric.
For Brexit Britain to remain a heavy hitter in international diplomacy, it would require new resources, more diplomats and a more active foreign policy. At present, he said, the UK spent more annually on the winter fuel allowance than on the Foreign Office, while the departments budget was only twice the UK aid budget to Ethiopia.
My concern is, whatever our ambition and intent, the process of our EU separation will suck our policy and political energy inwards, far more so if it leads to an existential crisis over Scotland or a deterioration of peace and and security in Northern Ireland, he said.
Other countries that had the UK down as a stable and active player in world affairs are unsure at the moment where we are heading.
Although he insisted Britain could yet retain global influence outside the EU, through other international institutions such as Nato and the UN, Fraser warned there was no point denying that the decision to leave affected how the UK conducted foreign policy.
To tackle the problem Fraser urged a revamp of Whitehall departments, saying May had fragmented the international effort, with six different government departments now leading on foreign and security policy.
He said the Foreign Office should be handed the same coordinating role over foreign affairs as the Treasury enjoys over economic policy. He suggested the Department of International Development and the Department of International Trade could be incorporated into the Foreign Office.
He disclosed Whitehall was facing an uphill struggle to respond to Brexit and that since there had been no planning for the UKs withdrawal from the EU, Whitehall was still in the process of analysing options for a future relationship. The Foreign Office in particular was preparing an initiative setting out how the UK could retain close security and foreign policy relations with the EU, even though in future it will be excluded from its meetings and denied access to papers.
Fraser said continued diplomatic and security influence would come with continued economic success, and urged the government not to imagine it would be easy to build a new economic relationship away from the EU. That is why a rational outcome on our future relationship with the EU single market is essential, he said
Fraser also urged the cabinet not to think Britain could build a reliable economic future by engaging only with non-European countries such as China and India. We export more to Belgium at the moment than we do to India, Russia Brazil and South Africa combined, he said. Although UK trade with these countries was growing, the structure of UK trade was not going to shift rapidly. Geographical proximity remained a huge determinant of a countrys trading relationships he said.
Britain had to acknowledge that its most important international relations would remain those with the United States, Germany and France.
And in pointed advice, possibly to the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, he said: A good start would be to listen to those around them that have experience and knowledge of how the EU works, the complex issues they will need to negotiate and what the people on the other side of the table will be thinking.