UN envoy: Britain optimistic about world role after Brexit

Britain’s new UN ambassador shares opinion on country’s position on world stage

Flags of member nations fly outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. AP
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Britain's new UN ambassador says the government is feeling confident about continuing its role as an important player on the world stage after its departure from the EU.

Barbara Woodward said the UK’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its presidency this year of the Group of Seven major industrialised nations were reasons for optimism.

Ms Woodward also listed its membership in the Group of 20 leading economic powers and Nato, and its hosting of the next UN global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the relationship with the EU,” she told AP.

“There’s a lot of values and principles that we share with European partners, which I think will stand us in good stead.”

Britain’s long and sometimes contentious divorce from the EU became final on December 31.

The split left the 27-member bloc without one of its major economic powers and the UK free to chart its future.

But it is also facing a world trying to confront a deadly pandemic and cope with rising unemployment, a growing wealth gap and a climate crisis.

An article in the US World Politics Review in October identified three visions for Britain's future.

They were “catastrophists who argue that the UK has become completely irrelevant on the international stage as a result of Brexit; the nostalgics, who see a powerful Britain through the lens of a great colonial power; and the denialists, who refuse to accept that Britain must adapt to a changing global context”.

Ben Judah, a British-French journalist and author, and Georgina Wright, a Brexit researcher at the Institute for Government, a UK think tank, said that since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, “it is undeniable that both British leadership and influence over global affairs have taken a hit”.

“In international circles, it has become fashionable to be overly dismissive of Britain’s weight in world affairs,” the report authors said. “Yet the country continues to carry weight.”

Ms Woodward, who went to the UN after more than five years as ambassador to China and previously in Russia, agrees.

“We’ve had a pretty introspective three years with Brexit negotiations and managing Covid,” she said.

But with the coming climate summit and Britain’s presidency of the G7 as the group grapples with economic recovery from the pandemic, she believes “I think we’ve got quite a big role to play.”

Ms Woodward said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “very keen on multilateralism”.

On December 31, as Britain was leaving the EU, Mr Johnson said the UK was “free to do trade deals around the world, and free to turbocharge our ambition to be a science superpower”.

This month, The Economist  magazine said the UK had the opportunity "to cut a dash on the world stage" with its G7 presidency.

It said that included extending invitations to Australia, India and South Korea to attend the group’s sessions, and hosting the Cop26 in Glasgow, “the most important diplomatic event of the year”.

Mr Johnson is expected to visit India and be Prime Minister Narendra Modi's guest of honour on Republic Day on January 26, "part of a much-touted tilt to the Indo-Pacific'," The Economist said.

It said Britain had also opened discussions to join the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and was pushing to become a “dialogue partner” of the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

Ms Woodward said the UK’s departure from the EU made the UN and Britain’s permanent Security Council seat “more important because the UN has always been the biggest multilateral forum”.

She spoke of Sunday’s hybrid commemoration of the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in London 75 years ago, which Britain is hosting, and that the world was very different today “but so many of the divisions are perhaps even deeper now”.

Ms Woodward said that in the coming year, three major issues must be tackled:

- Vaccinating rich and poor people everywhere against the coronavirus and taking action to revive economies devastated by the pandemic;

- Making climate change a priority, focusing on preventing temperature rises and raising the billions needed to make progress; and

- Dealing with global security problems.

Ms Woodward said Iran would be a central security concern, whether or not US president-elect Joe Biden rejoined the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, from which President Donald Trump pulled out in 2018.

She spoke of the Iranian role in other conflicts, including those in Yemen and Syria.

There are also security problems elsewhere in the Middle East and in Africa, where terrorist attacks in the Sahel are especially worrying, and security questions around protecting digital data.

The relations the new US administration decides to have with its allies in Europe and Nato, and how it builds a relationship with China, would also be critical, Ms Woodward said, as would how well it worked with fellow members of the UN Security Council.