By Nathan Dabrowski
Following parliament's damning vote against military action in Syria on August 29th, many prominent voices are asking what the future of British foreign policy will be and whether or not the United Kingdom will continue to occupy an influential spot on the world stage. The gateway to global influence, however, is right on our doorstep.
"A small island no one pays attention to." These words, spoken by Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman during a press conference at the recent G20 meeting in St Petersburg, could not have come at a worse time for David Cameron. The Conservative prime minister, who had just recently suffered a substantial blow to his leadership after losing a key vote in the Commons on military action in Syria, has continued to actively campaign for an international solution to what is simultaneously a bitter civil war and a humanitarian emergency.
The spokesman's poorly thought-out retort was delivered in response to Cameron's claims that Britain has new evidence of chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, being used in an attack on the suburbs of Syrian capital Damascus on August 21st, in which 1,400 individuals (many of whom were children) are estimated to have lost their lives. The idea that the words and actions of the UK government are inconsequential to the international community is clearly ridiculous. For better or for worse, Britain has played a leading role in almost every major intervention of the last century. Nevertheless, the comment has hit upon a nerve.
MPs and commentators from left to right are commenting on what has been seen as an isolationist trend in Britain, largely stemming from our recent experience in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Libya. "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system”, chancellor George Osborne said in the aftermath of the vote. "I hope this doesn't become the moment we turn our backs on the world's problems."
Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Lib Dems from 1988 to1999, has been especially vocal on this trend. After military action was struck down in the Commons, he declared on Twitter: "In 50 years of trying to serve my country, I have never felt so depressed/ashamed." Later, in an editorial for the Guardian, Ashdown argued that "there is a dangerous mood of isolationism running in our country" and that "we must make a clear decision whether this is the path we want".
True isolationism would indeed be bad for Britain, as the relative prosperity our country has enjoyed throughout the last few centuries has been fuelled by our openness to new ideas, new cultures and new markets. However, the dichotomy constructed by Ashdown between isolationism on one hand and a military intervention in Syria on the other is a false one. To continue to wield influence on the global stage, Britain need not look to the Middle East but to Europe.
This year the UK marked 40 years of EU membership, with euroscepticism at a seemingly all-time high. The pressure of losing seats to Ukip and from backbenchers in Cameron's own party led the Conservative leader to agree to hold a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017 despite his stated pro-EU stance. Whether or not Cameron's gamble on an EU referendum backfires on him, he is right to insist on the importance of Britain's membership in the European Union.
Economically speaking, the EU is by far the UK's biggest trading partner, accounting for 52% of our total trade in goods and services, or more than £400 billion. Arguably the most important area of UK-EU trade is in financial services, where the UK claims a trade surplus of£12 billion. Indeed, London is the financial capital of the EU despite its position outside the eurozone, a fact that grants us considerable leverage in negotiating regulation and, perhaps even more crucially, on the foreign policy stage.
Though it often goes unnoticed, EU enlargement policy has been one of the greatest diplomatic tools of the last century. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the EU (often led by the UK) brought newly independent eastern European countries such as Poland and the Baltic States under their wing, a move that has kept them from sliding back into a hegemonic relationship with Russia while guaranteeing new allies and markets for EU member states.
Such work is far from over. Today, Ukraine finds itself in a tug of war between East and West. As the country approaches the Vilnius Summit this November, where Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych plans to sign a landmark Association Agreement with the EU, Russia is putting unprecedented pressure on its smaller neighbour to bow out of the deal and instead join its own customs union with former ex-Soviet states
Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia. Through the economic and diplomatic heft of the European Union, the UK can play a leading role in helping to extricate Ukraine from Russia's all-consuming orbit. In this case, it is doubtful indeed that Putin would dismiss us as a "small island that no one listens to".
At the end of the day, Britain should only intervene on the global stage insofar as the actions promote our interests, political, economic or otherwise. Whether an armed intervention in Syria would have fulfilled such criteria is debateable. Our active participation in the European Union is not though, and it is through engaging with Brussels that Britain can continue to act as a world leader in the future.
Nathan Dabrowski is an eastern European correspondent based in Krakow
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