As the British government and the European Council are working hard to figure out the way forward after the Leave camp won the referendum, it is not too early to look at the many likely fallouts of a Brexit in the foreign policy field, if and when the UK actually leaves the EU. One can think of many negative consequences but perhaps some positive effects too (with some wisdom and luck). As an unfortunate coincidence, 28 June was the day the European Council of heads of state and government convened to discuss Brexit but also, almost as an unnoticed appendix, to listen to Federica Mogherini's presentation of the EU Global Strategy Review.
As Mogherini stated on arrival, this was not going to be the highlight of the day. Indeed, the European Council conclusions included a meager 37 words about the issue. So, for the time being, the first casualty of Brexit will be the crafting of a bold, security-based global strategy for the EU. In the weeks and months ahead, staff time and energy in EU institutions and member countries' administrations will be allocated the task of figuring out the minute details of an orderly Brexit. This is obviously no time for grand strategies. So, redesigning the main orientations of the EU's foreign policy will have to wait for quieter times.
But the casualty list does not stop there. The closer one looks at current policies, the more issues one finds.
For example, in the immediate future, can the EU enlargement policy and the association agreements with neighboring countries do anything else than go into "survival mode," with little room for progress or innovations? Can ongoing visa facilitation discussions with Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine go anywhere in a political context where immigration concerns were a major driver of the Leave campaign? What will happen with Britain’s contribution to the three billion euro EU-Turkey refugee fund being implemented as the Brexit procedure will be unfolding, not to mention the second fund supposed to follow in a timeframe when the UK might already be out of the EU altogether?
In the medium-term, once the UK will have effectively left the EU, so will its contribution to the EU budget. As a result, monies available for all EU policies – internal and external – will shrink. This means that as of 2019, the EU budget for development assistance, humanitarian aid, and enlargement funds will have shrunk by the exact amount the UK used to contribute. This will affect refugees, the poorest countries, and neighbors such as Jordan or Tunisia – and indeed Turkey.
Subject to discussions that will take place in the upcoming two years, the implementation of EU external programs will witness substantial changes. No more British experts in the technical support activities, no more twinning activities with British institutions, and no more "Erasmus+" students heading to British universities. The list of practical consequences is almost endless, but one thing is certain; with the UK out, the EU's offer to the world in terms of knowhow, knowledge, and educational cooperation will be smaller. This is a sad development indeed, because this loss is unlikely to be matched by a rise in British bilateral funding for similar programs.
In the trade field, dozens of non-EU countries currently enjoying commercial agreements with the EU will have to go through a process of amending these texts in order to exclude the UK, unless of course the specific deal to be hammered out between the UK and the "EU27" (i.e. the remaining EU members) will include a form of "association" with the third countries concerned. Even the renegotiation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union will be affected by Brexit.
On a more general political level, one has to consider the possibility of an even stronger populist wave across the EU27, riding on the (false) impression that the British people have "regained their control of external policies over the Brussels bureaucracy" (as the Leave campaign narrative went). This may not only trigger several requests for referendums, as is already the case with some political parties in France and the Netherlands, but more importantly it may lead to a pervasive tendency to run more prudent, more inward-looking policies with third countries. And perhaps also it may reinforce the current xenophobic trends across Europe. Bad news for third countries and for Europeans as well.
But there may be some positive fallouts one can hope for.
From what we hear today from many of the EU27 governments, there might be a "revival" reflex in terms of foreign policy. It is premature to speculate on what such a political decision might include. But this could mean that, perhaps on a case-by-case basis, the EU would want to demonstrate that its relations with third countries are alive and developing. In such a context, this may lead to positive decisions on cases where progress is within reach in a short timeframe. Yet, it is too early to say where exactly this would apply.
One possible avenue for the UK’s relationship with the EU27 might favorably impact Turkey. Experts have listed five to seven differrent types of agreements available to the British government to organize the country's links with the EU, i.e. the Norway formula, the Swiss formula, an EU-Turkey type customs union, and others. Currently, Turkey is the only country in the world enjoying a customs union with the EU and discussions have already started to expand it from a coverage of industrial products to possibly agricultural products and services as well. The UK could have an interest in having a similar, extensive customs union with the EU27, covering financial services for example.
Such a course of action, though only an assumption at this stage, could pave the way for a similar status for Turkey and the UK. It must be stressed, however, that a customs union extended to services would require substantial reforms in the economic policy field in order to ensure that economic operators being producing and trading freely within the same unified zone enjoy a level playing field. Hence, Turkey's competition policy, public procurement policy, or employment and social affairs legislations, to quote a few key areas, will need to be somehow aligned with the EU's own.
At this point in time, it is still early to speculate how exactly the EU's foreign policy instruments will be affected by Brexit. It is easier to describe the negative consequences than to imagine possible benefits. An optimistic view inevitably rests on the hope that the 27 remaining members of the EU will want to show the necessary political resolve to carry on with the implementation of their foreign policy instruments with third countries.
An EU that is open to the world and able to share its values and prosperity, is what Europeans and citizens form third countries need. Brexit should not raise hurdles on this path.