by Luke Richer
The NHS, immigration, Scotland, a hung parliament and…how to eat a bacon sandwich…were all topics that hogged the front pages of the British media in the run up to the United Kingdom’s 2015 General Election. A policy area startlingly absent from debate was foreign policy.
Foreign policy challenge
After the Conservatives surprisingly clear victory, the new Government is faced with a series of foreign policy challenges, one of which will dominate discussion in Britain and beyond.
At a time of great global upheaval, Cameron and the UK have played a bit-part role. The Coalition Government took part in enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya and, but for a vote against in the House of Commons, would have intervened in Syria three years later. Cameron was described as a ‘foreign policy irrelevance' in dealings with Putin’s Russia, with Merkel and Hollande driving negotiations on behalf of Europe. Cameron was nowhere to be seen.
Seeking to nurture a more global outlook to Britain’s foreign policy, his tenure has included visits to India and China. The Coalition increased Official Development Assistance to join the ‘g07’ club, whilst its defence spending, despite NATO commitments, has fallen.
In years to come, however, the foreign policy issue that will come to define David Cameron’s period in power is his country’s membership of the European Union.
Responding to the rise of UKIP and the horde of eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, Cameron has promised an In/Out referendum in 2017, following a renegotiation of the EU treaties.
Cameron’s difficulties in his dealings with the EU stretch back to taking the Conservatives out of the European Parliament’s centre-right EPP group, to his poorly played opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker being elected Commission President. In Brussels, the UK’s influence has surely waned.
To be dominated by issues such as institutional rebalancing, freedom of movement and protecting the single market from the eurozone, renegotiations will not be plain-sailing. Some EU leaders have signalled intent to discuss a deal but France, Germany and others will not easily bow to Britain's demands.
Whatever Cameron brings back to the UK, he will campaign to keep Britain inside the EU. So will Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, so will most business leaders, and so will many of the near 50 percent of the British electorate who latest polls say would like to stay inside the European Union.
Nevertheless, much can happen in two years and the risk of Britain breaking from her uneasy membership of the EU is real.
A long shadow is being cast over Britain and Europe in the form of this referendum. This at a time when Britain is fragmenting, and when deadly irregular migration flows and climate change are front and centre of Europe’s and the global agenda. This is at a time when Europe is surrounded by an ‘arch of insecurity’ stretching from the Donbas to the Sahel.
Add to these challenges Britain’s fight to stay relevant and search to find her place in the world. What is certain is that whilst the UK’s foreign policy was not a topic broached in the run up to the election, it will take centre stage after it.
Luke Richer is the Membership External Relations Officer, YPFP Brussels
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.