Britain has a long and often difficult history with Europe and the European Union. The country became a member state in 1975; economic reasons and Britain’s loss of influence in the international scene after the Second World War played an important role in this decision [1] and Britain has been in favor for an intergovernmental approach since the beginning. [2] The British are not in favor of a union of states under a federal approach, [3] they do not want the “United States of Europe” envisioned by Winston Churchill in Zürich in 1946. [4] The relationship of Britain and the European Union is now at another low with the upcoming referendum in 2017 about Britain’s exit of the Union announced by Prime Minister David Cameron. Britain already opted out of several union policies such as the Euro- and the Schengen-zone. This creates political and technical problems in the day to day interactions of the member states and weakens the European Union’s solidarity. [5]

Many arguments in favor of a Brexit involve social security issues, migration and economic consequences, especially in the aftermath of the euro crisis. David Cameron has announced the conditions for which Britain would stay in the Union on the 10th of November 2015.

Britain fears a loss of sovereignty and demands the opt out of the obligation in the Art 1 of the TEU that demands an “ever closer union” [6] and demands more power for the national parliaments in blocking EU regulations. Furthermore they demand that Britain can restrict the access to social benefits for migrants from the EU during the first four years of their stay to avoid mass migration and welfare tourism. Other conditions involve the protection of the single market and non-eurozone countries and to cut “burdens to business”, meaning a diminution of the so called “Brussels bureaucracy”. [7] These conditions concern mostly topics of internal politics and do not cover the important domain of Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. This is also the case in most of the discussions about the Brexit.

There are important impacts of a Brexit on the foreign policy of the Union but also on the foreign policy of the country itself.  This paper tries to point out how Common Foreign and Security Policy of the Union could influence the British point of view towards the Brexit.

Foreign and Security Policy is based on decisions usually taken unanimously in the European Council, according to the intergovernmental approach. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 has strengthened this area of action by creating the post of the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently Federica Mogherini [8] and the European External Action Service. [9] Britain was reluctant towards the institutionalization of the external policy of the Union and for example vetoed the proposition to call the High Representative the “European Union Minister of Foreign Affairs” [10] This title may have sounded too sovereign for the British and signified a certain loss of power for the national foreign ministers. With its Common Foreign and Security Policy the Union wants to preserve peace and strengthen international security, promote international cooperation, develop and consolidate democracy, rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The European Union is a key player in international relations and has already contributed multiple times to the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the maintenance of peace. [11]

The European foreign policy is largely controlled and shaped by “the big three”: Germany, France and Great Britain. These countries contribute abundantly to the resources of the policy and are the only global actors among the member states. Being one of the big three, Britain can rely more on its own weight in international relations. But it is also a big player in the Unions foreign policy with 12.5% of the population of the European Union and 13.8% of the Union’s GDP, as well as 21.4% of the military expenditure of Europe. With its global influence and important diplomatic network, Britain is less dependent on the multilateral diplomacy of the Union. This explains why Britain is not much in favor of strengthening the European Institutions and why it adopts a more restrictive attitude towards structural issues, as it sees this as a direct competition to its national influence.

Foreign policy is not likely to be a decisive factor for Britain in regard to its future in the European Union as it is more focused on domestic politics, economic development and the euro crisis at the moment. This might be a mistake as the Union’s foreign policy offers many advantages to Britain.

For Britain, European foreign policy is just one of many forums where it can act on the global scene. As one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, member of NATO and G8, there are many other arenas for the British foreign policy. But Britain should not underestimate the European Union and its weight as an international player. The Union reassembles 28 States with often converging interests and Britain is one of the leaders of their common foreign policy and can strongly influence the decision taken, as it has much more relative weight in the Union than in the United Nations for example. Even tough its has the right to veto decisions in the UN, only the European Union offers a platform where it can contribute and shape the common foreign policy of other sovereign states in such a manner.

Some consider the Commonwealth an alternative for the British after the Brexit. This might be a possibility when it comes to economic aspects, but even in this domain there are big differences between the countries, even tough they share a common language and values. Some states such as India, have very strong protectionist measures in place [12] and no intentions of giving them up, so creating a  free trade zone similar to the European Union might be very difficult. But if we look beyond this option, the Commonwealth cannot offer as many shared interests with Britain as the European Union. There are many big and influential countries, such as India, Canada, Australia and  more, but the interests of these countries are often very different. The Commonwealth regroups 53 countries, among them are developed and developing countries of five different continents. [13] This may cause problems as Britain cannot rely on a broad support among the other member states, especially because they are not as interdependent and linked among each other as the states in the European Union, where the high degree of integration automatically creates shared general interests that are reinforced by the institutional structure. Another problem is that decisions concerning the Commonwealths structure and politics have to be taken unanimously. If the countries that share close interests to Britain, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia want to propose changes such as the reinforcement of Commonwealth values via a Commonwealth commissioner on human rights democracy and the rule of law in 2012 [14] they are quickly accused of neo-colonial intentions. [15] So it is much harder to shape the Commonwealths political decision for Britain than in the Union, where a sort of unspoken agreement is in place, that the three big countries lead the foreign policy and the smaller countries accept this informal dominance because of the added weight they gain in international relations due to their Union membership. [16]

As the British foreign policy agenda starts to shift from security issues in the post 9/11 phase to a more economic prosperity agenda, Britain seeks to build fruitful relationships with emerging economies outside of Europe. This strategy is quite successful but largely due to Britain’s membership to the European Union that makes it a very interesting partner for these new and rising powers. Without the Union as a background, Britain might lose some of its force of attraction and might not be able to maintain those relationships. [17]

Even though David Cameron’s government is quite reluctant towards the development of institutional capacities and Common Foreign and Security Policy, Britain remains a very active participant in this policy, as a study from 2015 shows. [18] Britain is active but very pragmatic and opportunistic in its use of European foreign policy. It does not want to commit to anything that could limit its room for maneuver or its sovereignty but it is willing to cooperate and use some of the institutions, tools and resources provided by the Union to achieve a goal that works not only in the Union’s favor but also to its own advantage. [19] Because the Union regroups many states with similar interests, its foreign policy can multiply Britain’s national policy. [20] This ambiguity and “cherry picking” approach is linked to the fundamental question if Britain is really part of Europe and the European Union, [21] a question that the British population will soon have to answer.

Another important factor that needs to be considered is Britain’s atlanticism. There is a close bilateral relation between Britain and the United States of America and the United States are in favor of the european integration. This close link offers the United States an insight and  influence in the  continental european affairs and decision making process that they do not want to give up. The USA is therefore in favor of Britain staying in the Union as without it, the United States would have to work a lot harder to gain the same amount of influence by developing  relationships with other member states. The USA see the importance of multilateral diplomacy but similar to the British perspective, they choose to only use it when it corresponds to their interests. They are “multilateralists by principle and unilateralists in practice” [22]

These considerations have shown that Britain has much more to loose by leaving the European Union than just a favorable trade agreement. Its influence on the world stage could diminish considerably if it looses the attachment to one of the big players in the world order of today. The European Union is often considered a soft power because, compared to other actors such as the United States or the NATO, its Common Security and Defense policy seems poorly developed. But it can still exercise a considerable influence in international politics. Britain is a country that, since the decline of its empire, has sought to preserve its role among the most important players in the world and by exiting the European Union it might put this position at risk.

According to the realist approach towards the international relations, a strong country is less in favor of a supranational foreign policy because it is capable of conducting an independent  successful foreign policy and does not want to minimize its autonomy. A small country sees more advantages in a common policy because its loss in autonomy is compensated by the added weight it can gain in international relations. Another advantage is that the institutional structure of the Union can limit the room of maneuver for big countries that could be a threat for the smaller countries under normal circumstances. [23] It appears that the government sees Britain as a big country as it is not willing to give up a lot of its autonomy, because it judges that it could lead a successful and autonomous foreign policy on its own. The future will show if the relative decline of Britain and the rise of new powers make Britain a small country in the new world order and if it is giving up on an important strategic advantage by leaving the European Union and abandoning the support of 27  states. Even though the country also takes part in other international forums, only in the European Union are the member states so interlinked and interdependent. Their interests have a tendency to converge much more, because of the multiple and close relationships. There is no equivalent alternative that would offer Britain so many advantages, so the population will decide over Britain’s future as a global power in 2017.  If the discussions about the Brexit start to include the question of Foreign and Security Policy, the British might be able to change their mind just in time.



[1]Daniel Hannan, “It’s precisely 40 years since we became members of the EEC. Knowing what we now know, would we have joined?”, The Telegraph, 1.1.2013.

[2]   Perisic, Bojana. “Britain and Europe: a History of Difficul Relations”, 2010, p. 5-6.

[3]   Interview with Andrew Duff, “On Britain in Europe”, 28.1.2013, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[4]Website European Union, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[5]Duff, Andrew, “How to deal with Europe’s British Problem”, 2015, p. 2.

[6]Website Euro-Lex, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[7]BBC, “The four key points from David Cameron’s EU letter”, 10.11.2015,

URL:, last consulted 22.11.15,

[8]Website of the European External Action Service, URL:  last consulted 22.11.15.

[9]Website of the European Union, URL:, last consulted 22.11.15.

[10]Lehne, Stefan, “The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy”, 2012, p. 19.

[11]Website of the European Union, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[12]Website World Bank, URL:,,contentMDK:20592520~menuPK:579454~pagePK:34004173~piPK:34003707~theSitePK:579448,00.html, last consulted 24.11.15.

[13]Website of the Commonwealth, URL:, last consulted 24.11.15.

[14]Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report”, 2013, p. 110-112.

[15]The Economist, “The empire strikes back. Some British Eurosceptics see the Commonwealth as an alternative to Europe. It isn’t.”, 24.11.12, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[16]Lehne, Stefan, “The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy”, 2012, p. 3-5.

[17]Lehne, Stefan, “The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy”, 2012, p. 12-18.

[18]ECFR Scorecard 2015, Website European Council on Foreign Relations, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[19]Balfour, Rosa, “Can the EU have a foreign and security policy without Britain?”, 2013.

[20]Dennison, Susi, “Britain is still a leader in European foreign poilcy”, URL:, last consulted 23.11.15.

[21]Lehne, Stefan, “The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy”, 2012, p. 26.

[22]Niblett, Robin, “Choosing between America and Europe: a new context for British foreign policy”, 2007.

[23]Koenig-Archibugi, Mathias, “Explaining Government Preferences for Institutional Change in Eu Foreign and Security Policy”, 2004, p. 144-145.