This House believes the UK would have more influence outside the EU

The EU referendum taking place in the UK may not be fought on the UK’s place in the world but it is certainly one of the central issues. Before the end of 2017 the people of the UK will have the opportunity to decide whether their destiny remains within the European Union or outside of it, relegated to the margins as those pro-Europeans would see it or able to play a newly independent role in the world as the Eurosceptics would have it. With the decision point by the public so near at hand, it is clearly the time too lay out the arguments on both sides for whether the UK would be better off in or out in terms of foreign and global affairs.

The conventional wisdom is that British influence will diminish, or at best remain roughly where it is at the moment if the country were to exit the EU, however we cannot ignore the possibility that the newly freed UK could carve out an important new role for itself. The possibilities for a new role are potentially quite varied so the arguments in the debate will necessarily have to remain quite vague as, barring some unlikely expansion in resources, the government of the day will have to pick and choose its options.

So what are the possibilities for a British government outside of the EU trying to carve a new role:

1, It's the economy stupid. This is effectively the default option for those arguing that Britain will be better off out. Outside of the EU’s common market and trade barriers Britain is much freer to negotiate trade deals with countries that are growing faster. Britain can become a bit like a bigger version of Singapore or Hong Kong becoming more integrated into the global economy rather than Europe’s regional economy. This however while it may have economic advantages would likely not lead to much increase in influence simply prevent any loss.

2, Big Norway. Norway is known for its international arbitration and good offices as a mediator and for providing peacekeeping forces enabling the country to have greater weight in international affairs. The UK already regularly provides large numbers of peacekeepers however making the global promotion of peace the centrepiece of UK foreign and defence policy would seem an unlikely role for a country better known for taking part in wars than ending them, and one still wishing to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent.

3, Reinvigorating the Commonwealth. This is the most ambitious possible policy, and as such the most difficult to pull off. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s Harold Wilson pulled the UK back from ‘east of Suez’[1] and this attempt would to some extent reverse this decision. With the centre of power shifting to the Pacific this option would mean closer ties with Australia and India.

All three options require fair winds in areas outside of foreign policy making and international relations. This debate will make the assumption that Britain’s economy will not be severely affected by its leaving the EU so Britain remains as capable as before. It will also assume that a vote to leave the EU will not also result in the breakup of the UK, a possibility if Scotland in particular were to vote to stay. Finally it also assumes other capabilities remain the same, for example the UK will retain its nuclear deterrent.

When it comes to all three possibilities the downsides and the reasons for why it either won't work, or would work better from within the European Union are pretty similar thus ensuring a coherent counter narrative that the pro-Europeans will use when arguing to stay in.

[1] Longinotti, Edward, ‘’For God’s sake, act like Britain’ Lessons from the 1960s for British defence policy’, History and Policy, 9 September 2015,


The UK would have a completely independent foreign policy

Britain’s is not completely sovereign within the European Union with the EU having a common foreign and security policy and all economic negotiations taking place under the auspices of the EU trade commissioner, it is what the EU refers to as an ‘exclusive power’, rather than the Foreign Office.[1] Exiting would give these powers back to the UK. Regardless of how these powers are used this will mean the UK has more influence and freedom to manoeuvre as it will have more options with which it can negotiate with other powers.

[1] ‘Policy making: What is trade policy’, European Commission


It is a misconception that any nation has complete sovereignty in the realm of international affairs, the restraints and restrictions as a result of being in or out are simply different. Every foreign policy has to operate within the context of the international system, and the capabilities with which the state has. Leaving the EU will give back certain areas with which the UK can negotiate but at the same time will ensure the UK is a lone voice rather than part of a combined negotiating position. The common foreign policy is just that; 28 countries making the same point, much more difficult for even the biggest nations to ignore. The decision making is done by all the heads of state/government so cannot be said to represent a loss of sovereignty.[1]

[1] ‘Foreign & security policy at EU level’, EUR-lex, updated 8 December 2015,

Britain will have greater ability to respond quickly

Whatever the EU is we can all agree it is not the fastest and most responsive of institutions. As a result of needing the input of 28 countries EU external policy is slow and faltering. Leaving will enable the UK greater freedom to create its own policies and to reframe them in response to changing circumstances and challenges. The UK will no longer need to take into consideration any other country’s views. 


In the areas of policy where rapid responses are necessary even within the EU the UK retains its freedom of action. The areas where there is joint policy are issues such as trade and environment negotiations which are always slow anyway. Defence and security are areas where power remains with the member states. The only areas of foreign policy where the slow speed of the EU comes up against slow decision making are areas where joint policy is a benefit as in response to the migration crisis; no one nation could have responded alone, even Germany, who take in most migrants needed there to be a path to the country. 

EU economic preference will no longer bind Britain

As a customs union the EU has a common external tariff set at the EU level meaning that the UK cannot tailor its external trade policy to its own needs. Instead the UK will be free to negotiate its own free trade agreements with any power it wishes. This may be individually or joining larger trade groupings such as the currently being negotiated Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal between the USA, Canada, and the EU. it also means the UK is free to reject such joint agreements, as many campaigning groups would like with the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal.[1] Countries which are not in regional blocks have not suffered as a result, South Korea has 24 free trade agreements[2] and despite an economy that is just over half the size of the UK’s has trade in goods worth similar amounts;$1,098bln $1,190bln[3] but importantly gets to negotiate each one itself and to its own terms and conditions.

[1] See #noTTIP,

[2] ‘Free Trade Agreements’, Asia Regional Integration Centre, 2015,

[3] Adding exports and imports of merchandise, ‘Korea, Republic of and United Kingdom’, World Trade Organisation


As a smaller and less attractive market the UK will inevitably get a less good deal than it could have with the whole of the EU at its back. Moreover if the UK still wants free access to the EU market, which accounts for 45% of UK exports and 53%,[1] it will still not have a completely free hand economically. Norway for example may retain close economic links and freely trade with Europe but does not have any ability to make decisions on EU rules and must accept their regulations – clearly a worse position than the UK now.[2]

[1] Webb, Dominic, and Keep, Matthew, ‘In brief: UK-EU economic relations’, House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, No. 06091, 19 January 2016, p.3,

[2] Eide, Espen Barth, ‘We pay, but have no say: that’s the reality of Norway’s relationship with the EU’, The Guardian, 27 October 2015,

UK will be disentangled from EU affairs

Leaving the EU would mean that Britain is no longer entangled in foreign policy issues that are of little interest to it and instead could devote itself to other more productive issues. The two main foreign policy crises for the EU at the moment are Ukraine and migration, neither of which concern the UK when not a member of the EU. Migration would be stopped at the channel while Ukraine is at the opposite end of the EU. The EU would essentially become a buffer for the UK.


Ukraine may not be a high priority itself for British foreign policy but Russia is still a major, possibly the most major, threat. The UK has had very poor relations with Russia for years with various spy incidents such as the murder of Alexander Litvinenko[1] and with Russian bombers regularly being intercepted near the UK, six times in 2015,[2] even before we get onto Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine and British and Russian interests in the Middle East often being at loggerheads. The migration crisis may not directly affect the UK but it's cause, Syria and Middle Eastern instability, is a major concern for the UK as a result of UK nationals joining Daesh.

[1] Owen, Robert, ‘Report into the death of Alexander Litvinenko’, The Litvinenko Inquiry, January 2016,

[2] ‘RAF jets intercept Russian bombers heading to UK’, BBC news, 17 February 2016,

The UK needs to be part of a block to remain relevant

History is moving towards bigger and bigger blocks being relevant. The US and USSR dwarfed the previous global power the UK[1] and China and India look set too be bigger again. In a world where the great powers are regions of the globe in themselves to be influential requires being part of a bigger group. The EU negotiates on equal terms with China, India and the USA. The UK on its own would be very much a second order power.

[1] See Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, 1987


The UK has more influence as a power in the second tier being sought after rather than having its voice swamped in the EU where it is but one of 27 voices. The UK will retain its UN Security Council seat and nuclear weapons, it will remain a powerful country that is relevant across all sorts of areas, it will simply be less constrained.

Power is shifting to the East

Geography has a great influence on the position of nations and their foreign policies. For example it is the UK’s Island nation status that is a major reason why it is not fully committed to the European project. Attention internationally is now shifting to East Asia where the main rising powers are; China and India. This means that the UK’s position is less geographically important so to compensate the UK needs Europe; China’s leader Xi Jinping on his state visit to Britain stated China wants “a united EU, and hopes Britain… can play an even more positive and constructive role in promoting the deepening development of China-EU ties.”[1]  The United States, Britain’s main ally since World War II, is much less interested in Europe.

[1] ‘China wants Britain in a united European Union, Xi Jinping tells David Cameron’, South China Morning Post, 23 October 2015,


There are also advantages to this power shift; the UK is less threatened so better able to act. The UK is therefore free to align itself with whichever powers it wishes rather than having alignments dictated by geography and who is threatening the UK. In the past the threat from Germany, and then the USSR, forced the UK into an alliance with France and the USA. When it comes to deciding between the USA, China, and India the UK has a free hand. As a result the UK has a once in a lifetime opportunity to strike new “trade deals with the growth economies around the world”.[1]

[1] Boris Johnson quoted in Erixon, Fredrik, ‘Boris and the Breziteers are talking nonsense about Britain’s trade policies’, The Spectator, 1 April 2016,

The EU is a force multiplier

The UK gets more bang for the buck as a result of being a member of the EU. It has representation in more countries as a result of the European External Action Service (equivalent of the Foreign Office) thus extending UK influence to countries where it would not otherwise have representation. For example the EU have representation in Djibouti[1] whereas the UK individually is represented there from neighbouring Ethiopia.[2]

The UK, along with France, and to a lesser extent Germany, leads the EU on foreign policy matters, as illustrated by the first The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy being a Briton, Catherine Ashton.[3] This means the UK essentially gains from the backing of the other 26 member states giving the UK a much more influential voice globally. For example the EU has a role in the Middle East ‘quartet’ of the EU, USA, Russia and United Nations[4] giving the UK a place at the table on the key issue of Israel Palestine where otherwise it would have none.

[1] ‘Délégation en République de Djibouti’, Délégation de l’Union européenne

[2] ‘British Embassy Addis Ababa’, Gov.uk

[3] ‘The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’, Europea Union External Action

[4] ‘The Quartet’, Office of the Quartet


It is undeniable that in some areas the EU is a force multiplier. But many of the issues it uses this leverage on are not areas of concern to a UK that has left the EU; migrants arriving in Greece are of little national interest to the UK. Britain would instead focus its weight on areas that are of direct concern such as terrorism. In other areas the multiplier simply saves the UK a little money; could the UK have an embassy in Djibouti? Certainly if it wished, but it is not an area of primary concern to the UK. 

Leaving the EU will mean the UK will have less regional influence

Like it or not the UK is a part of Europe geographically and as such the countries that are most important to UK foreign policy are also in Europe. Leaving the EU will damage relations with those powers that are currently a part of the EU, and potentially also those who are used to dealing with the UK as part of the EU. The United States has noted it “benefits from a strong UK being part of the European Union”[1] in much the same way as the UK does. If this is the UK's strongest ally's view what would be the view of the powers from whom out would mean divorce? The UK will be outside the group trying to influence it rather than on the inside. The EU states will no longer need to listen to the UK on a wide range of issues where it has previously been a key voice.

[1] Earnest, Josh, ‘Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest’, White House, 14 March 2016,


The UK will still be part of Europe just not in the EU. It will still be a member of a plethora of other organisations; NATO, OSCE, Council of Europe, European free trade area. Countries like France and Germany are not going to stop listening to the UK because it is no longer a member.


‘Free Trade Agreements’, Asia Regional Integration Centre, 2015,

‘RAF jets intercept Russian bombers heading to UK’, BBC news, 17 February 2016,

‘Délégation en République de Djibouti’, Délégation de l’Union européenne,

Earnest, Josh, ‘Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest’, White House, 14 March 2016,

Eide, Espen Barth, ‘We pay, but have no say: that’s the reality of Norway’s relationship with the EU’, The Guardian, 27 October 2015,

Erixon, Fredrik, ‘Boris and the Breziteers are talking nonsense about Britain’s trade policies’, The Spectator, 1 April 2016,

‘Policy making: What is trade policy’, European Commission,

‘Foreign & security policy at EU level’, EUR-lex, updated 8 December 2015,

‘The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’, European Union External Action,

‘British Embassy Addis Ababa’,,

Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, 1987

Longinotti, Edward, ‘’For God’s sake, act like Britain’ Lessons from the 1960s for British defence policy’, History and Policy, 9 September 2015,


‘The Quartet’, Office of the Quartet,

Owen, Robert, ‘Report into the death of Alexander Litvinenko’, The Litvinenko Inquiry, January 2016,

‘China wants Britain in a united European Union, Xi Jinping tells David Cameron’, South China Morning Post, 23 October 2015,

Webb, Dominic, and Keep, Matthew, ‘In brief: UK-EU economic relations’, House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, No. 06091, 19 January 2016, p.3,

‘Korea, Republic of and United Kingdom’, World Trade Organisation,