It is sometimes surprising how deeply Brexit has resonated, not just with Britons, but around the world. I do not claim that every conversation in recent months from the Gulf to Gaza City has opened with it, but in cafes or with my former ministerial friends from overseas it is an early intervention. I am asked quizzically and with a tone of concern: “So, hows it going then?”. Occasionally, it is followed by a chuckle. “So, you’re British! Brexit, huh?!”
This week, as we leave the European Union, an issue that has blighted the leaderships of the last four Conservative Party prime ministers and torn the UK in two reaches a significant stage. I will not be dancing in Parliament Square on January 31 at 11pm (midnight in Brussels). I will regret our leaving, and the loss of formal association with our friends and neighbours, but I will also be accepting the decision of our people and doing all I can to support a new future for my country. I would rather it was being ushered in with quiet reflection and appreciation of what lies ahead, rather than triumphalism. But such sentiment, I suppose, is why my side of the argument was lost, and why I am no longer an MP.
My commitment to what would eventually become the EU was forged before I was born. I was a lucky British child – not conscripted to fight in a European conflict like most generations before me. I watched newsreels of the destruction of the continent in two shattering wars that drew in the rest of the world before leaving it ruined and broken. As I grew older, I became familiar with a generation of European politicians determined to make “never again” a meaningful phrase, and who built a community of states to prevent future conflict. I voted to remain in the European Community in the referendum of 1975. When I entered the British Parliament in 1983, I found myself serving with politicians who had driven tanks across the continent and knew the horrors of war first-hand, and who believed that the UK’s EU membership and engagement assisted in that overwhelmingly important cause.
I joined them, and have remained of that view to this day. After accepting the democratic decision of the referendum, which included the votes of many whom I represent, I voted in Parliament to leave the EU, but only with an agreement to avoid catastrophe and ensure our mutually beneficial future. I fought my corner, which cost me my ministerial role, and ultimately the party whip. Having successfully garnered support for my views, I chose to leave Parliament, wishing the country and the prime minister well, but appreciating that, if I had stayed, promoting my position further would have required impossible compromise and a renunciation of that passion and commitment I outlined above. A hollow man is not needed in the House of Commons.
My new path will, I hope, return me frequently to the Middle East and North Africa, a region that has captured my life and interest ever since my two spells as the minister responsible for Britain’s relationship with it, starting in 2010. Over the past 10 days, I have been in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Kuwait. There are frequent questions at the moment about the UK’s commitment to the region – and its foreign policy generally – in light its departure from the EU. At present, I’m inclined towards the view that there should be little change. This does not mean that there will not be, but I would argue the UK’s decisions must continue to be based more on existing realities than on any change brought about by Brexit.
Many matters are unaltered. The UK was in the Middle East long before the EU was ever thought of, and our centuries-old relationships are ours alone. This impacts on diplomatic and security matters, in which our position is strong but never taken for granted, and I am sure we will continue to work through a network of bilateral strategic task forces to enhance our friendships. We will continue with ambitious targets for trade and mutual investment, noting that the EU never signed a trade association agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council, for example. Indeed, the impact of the UK leaving the EU has seemed to me to be least in this area compared to many others.
There is much fascination with whether the UK will be pulled inevitably into the orbit of US foreign policy, should America make it a stipulation of trade deals. Up to now, I think the UK has shown considerable independence of mind during a period when leaving the EU might have left us vulnerable to being influenced to side with the US on matters such as Israel and Palestine. But, as I made clear to all sides of the issue on my recent visit with a conflict resolution group, the UK stood apart from the US on the latter's decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, declare the city Israel's capital, cut funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East or query the status of refugees.
Following this week’s events in Washington, new questions will arise. It is too soon to gauge long-term responses, though how a serious negotiation emerges from a one-sided launch designed for domestic political purposes currently escapes me. Perhaps, as the US has given up all pretence of being an independent broker, there might be a role for the UK and EU, together with regional partners, in salvaging any serious elements in the proposals – I do not see anything resolved by Tuesday’s announcement.
Relationships with Iran, and the future of any nuclear deal, have moved into a new phase after the killing of Qassem Suleimani, one of its commanders. Again, I cannot see future policy being as much influenced by leaving the EU as by recognising that recent events – including that action as well as growing internal and external disquiet over Iranian policies – require a change of Iranian direction and renewed regional diplomacy.
The UK, EU and US will, I believe, continue to co-operate throughout the region in the areas of governance, education and economics, and to support regional governments in meeting the challenges of a rapidly expanding and young population. Ultimately, these deeper and longer-term issues could have more influence on our collective future than any others.
Expect to see Global Britain fully engaged!
Alistair Burt is a British politician who served as Member of Parliament for more than three decades, and as Minister of State for the Middle East recently