Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe

It is easy to perceive Brexit as a distraction from more important issues, including the EU’s foreign policy challenges. And it is not hard to come up with similar nuisances such as the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election or the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, and the shock waves both votes are sending across Europe.

However, these events reflect the choices made by the people or leaders of democratic societies, based on their established rules, with all the flaws these contain. As such, these decisions are part of the political system Westerners cherish—and therefore differ from the threats emanating from, say, a declining Russia or a resurgent China, or the belligerent self-styled Islamic State.

Rather than wishing these so-called distractions would go away, European policymakers should deal with them in a way that makes the continent stronger to address structural challenges such as migration, climate change, and digitalization. Decisionmakers should focus on what are—or ought to be—Europe’s strengths: functional cooperation for mutual gain; an appreciation of pluralism, including by valuing dissenting opinions; and a commitment to a long-term perspective. On this basis, the EU will be able to regain its citizens’ support.


Jonathan EyalAssociate director of the Royal United Services Institute

Partly, yes: negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU not only saps political attention away from the continent’s urgent foreign and security policy questions but also reinforces the view—now commonly peddled by Russia’s propaganda outlets—that Europe is declining, both as a force and as a setter of public and moral values.

Still, British diplomats are keenly aware that no coherent policy toward Russia is feasible without pan-European cooperation, and there is no British policy toward Belarus or the Western Balkans that does not accept the EU’s centrality. It’s also in Britain’s interest to protect coordination among all European governments on the imposition and operation of sanctions regimes, if only because this bolsters London’s claim to remain Europe’s unchallenged financial center. Besides, Britain remains a key NATO actor, so it can hardly take its eye off European security issues.

What is required is an understanding that alongside trade and financial questions, Britain’s continued involvement in EU foreign and security policies is a matter that needs to be settled quickly. This is not a question of trading off British military support in return for trade concessions, but merely an acceptance that on foreign policy and security matters, Britain and the EU need each other in equal measure.


Kirsty HughesDirector of the Scottish Centre on European Relations

Brexit is both a distraction from and a weakening of EU foreign policy. The UK had already half opted out of many key current issues, notably in connection with the refugee and migration challenges. But the political and diplomatic time that Brexit will consume—across a large range of issues—is going to be substantial.

Relations between the UK and the 27 remaining EU member states will start a two-year (or longer) roller coaster when London triggers Article 50 of the EU treaty on March 29 and the European Council issues its draft guidelines in response. When the 27 other capitals attempt to influence both global challenges and crises in the EU’s neighborhood, the more fractious and unresolved the EU’s relationship with the UK is, the weaker the union may look. So in that sense, Brexit risks being more than just a distraction.

From the UK side, Brexit is going to dominate the UK’s political and policy agenda in the years ahead and is already putting huge strains on the country’s civil service. As a result, the UK’s foreign policy attention span will be limited, and its priorities will be shaped by London’s Brexit agenda. Any UK contribution to the EU’s foreign policy after Brexit is going to be even weaker and more limited than in recent years.


Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Twenty or thirty years ago, it may have been reasonable to affirm that the European Union or European Community was not the whole of Europe. That is no longer the case today. All of Europe is weakened by Britain leaving the EU. On foreign policy, the EU minus Britain is weaker, and Britain outside the EU will be a diminishing geopolitical player, even with London’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council—a status that will come under threat.

Europe faces five major foreign policy challenges: an erratic U.S. President Donald Trump; an expansionist Russian President Vladimir Putin; a Western Balkans rejecting the settlement reached at the end of the Yugoslav Wars; a sultanesque Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashing out at Greece, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria; and two destroyed states in Iraq and Libya and a semidestroyed one in Syria, all exporting refugees (and a few jihadists) to destabilize fearful communities in Europe.

Yet the only story in Brussels and other EU capitals is Brexit. Every European foreign ministry has had to divert resources to create Brexit teams to produce copious dossiers on all aspects of Brexit, to feed into the European Commission’s negotiating process.

A foreign policy message is only as strong as those who deliver it. A Europe disunited because of Brexit loses foreign policy clout as Britain shrinks and is diminished in power and authority.


Jacek Saryusz-WolskiMember of the European Parliament

Contrary to initial fears, Brexit has not been a distraction so far. On the contrary, the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership (and the following U.S. presidential election) has prompted the political class in the EU to devote more attention to the union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Rightly so, because Brexit could be a blow to the European defense architecture for two reasons: first, because the EU’s biggest army will leave the union’s structures; and second, because the UK acts as an important bridge between the U.S. and European pillars of the transatlantic security community.

That said, Europeans must avoid navel-gazing. The institutional challenge of Brexit should not serve as an excuse to avoid meeting the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense at a time of war on Europe’s doorstep. Nor should it encourage the creation of a European competitor to NATO. Instead, the EU must opt for a cohesive strategy and institutions that address the security concerns of the United States, the UK, Canada, and all 27 remaining member states of the EU.

Finally, the EU has to be wary of a policy void after Brexit. The UK has long maintained an inclusive and responsible policy toward Ukraine, Georgia, and the whole of Eastern Europe. It would be a tragedy if EU neighbors were to pay the highest price for Britain’s departure from the union.


Aarti ShankarPolicy analyst at Open Europe

Brexit hits the EU at a time when the union faces mounting internal and external challenges. The EU’s foreign policy is already being tested on multiple fronts by the refugee crisis, growing Turkish animosity, and an emboldened Russia. Against this backdrop, it is understandable that the ever-dominant subject of Brexit is perceived as diverting attention away from wider EU foreign policy.

But the implications of Brexit cannot feasibly represent a distraction. For one, Britain’s withdrawal has a material impact on the EU’s foreign policy offer. It leaves the EU without one of its foremost military powers, a highly developed diplomatic network, and a strong soft-power nation. Brexit means the cornerstones of EU foreign policy are diminished, a loss of capability from which the EU cannot shy away.

But equally, Brexit offers the EU more freedom to develop its vision on foreign policy without the UK’s reluctance stalling progress. Britain has for some time disengaged from the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and external action programs, choosing to pursue foreign policy through forums such as the UN and NATO instead. In this sense, Britain’s departure, far from a mere distraction, galvanizes the EU to reconsider and revise its ambition in external relations.


Richard G. WhitmanAssociate fellow at Chatham House and director of the Global Europe Centre

Brexit has the potential to derail EU foreign policy. It is the most significant diplomatic challenge the EU has faced in its history. Outside Europe, Brexit is viewed not only in terms of managing the exit of an existing member but also as a litmus test of whether the EU has the capacity to manage a crisis.

A breakdown in negotiations and failure to reach agreement on Brexit (with a perception that the EU has made unreasonable demands of the UK) would damage the EU’s foreign policy standing. Such a failure would reinforce views outside Europe that the EU lacks the ability to tackle its most significant political and diplomatic challenges.

Obtaining a successful outcome to the Brexit negotiations—that is, an agreement that satisfies both the EU and the UK—in the tight two-year timeframe provided for by Article 50 of the EU treaty would demonstrate that the EU can deliver on the most complex and demanding of negotiations. Reaching an outcome that preserves the UK as a committed ally for the EU would illustrate that the EU has the capacity not only to protect its interests but also to turn a crisis into a success.