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When Westminster withdrew the United Kingdom from the European Union (EU), it promised that Britain would have global reach. No longer would it be constrained by EU bureaucracy; it could expand its trade, political and security relations beyond the European continent. The challenge was huge, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson reminded voters of a glorious national past and raised hope that freedom from the EU could achieve commercial, political and security ambitions throughout the world. 


The struggle to achieve Global Britain is hobbled by the UK’s poor economic performance, justifiably attributed to the pandemic, Ukraine war and fallout from Brexit. The aspiration for greatness, however, remains. Trade agreements with Canada, Japan and across the Pacific raise hopes that the dream can be realized. Strong military support for Ukraine has demonstrated that Britain can show leadership, and Ukraine President Zelensky’s recent visit to London before flying to Brussels was interpreted as recognition of Britain’s considerable defense contributions.


How is the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak continuing PM Johnson’s struggle for greatness? He pursues trade agreements across the globe, enhancing them with increased market access for UK goods. He is re-engaging with European counterparts on defense after years of tension over Brexit. He is negotiating pragmatically with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol and restoring confidence in the stable management of the UK economy. Sunak’s goal may not be as glorious as Boris Johnson’s was, but it is realistic. He was always a Brexiteer and remains determined to demonstrate that the UK can be a serious partner in global decision making.


Enhanced international trade agreements


Shortly after Brexit, the Secretary for International Trade, Liz Truss, negotiated trade agreements with regions and multiple nations already holding EU trade agreements. Replication was easy. Now, ambition has risen and negotiations to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) are in their last phase. In 2020 PM Johnson formally applied to join the partnership boasting that it would give the UK access to a trading bloc with a combined GDP of £9 trillion. Two years on, negotiators on both sides of the Pacific are at odds over the level of market access that the original 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) want from the UK. The Indian government has taken the lead on tough negotiations with London.


Enhanced trade with Japan is a high priority for Rishi Sunak. Both commercial and defense reasons motivate the Prime Minister to seek closer ties across the Pacific. Talks of an enhanced trade agreement with Japan began in 2021, but problems persist. Japanese companies, 970 of which currently operate in the UK, remain there because of the UK – EU trade agreement. Japanese automakers view the UK as a gateway to Europe’s market. But should the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol remain unresolved and the EU impose penalties for a potential UK abrogation of this agreement, the gateway may be restricted, if not closed. Thus, the problems created by the Protocol still must be resolved.


Sunak’s government is expected to announce an agreement with the EU on the Protocol, which would calm those international traders waiting to know whether the UK can be relied upon to fulfill its international agreements and abide by EU law and regulation. Sunak has reportedly agreed that the European Court of Justice will remain the supreme court of law in Northern Ireland, hearing cases that fail to be resolved at the national level. He has also agreed that EU food safety regulations will apply in Northern Ireland. However, Sunak has not yet acquired the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Belfast. Problems associated with the Protocol now move from Brussels to Belfast and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.


In the post-Brexit years, customs forms were overly detailed and cumbersome, requiring extra staff dedicated to bureaucratic tasks. This made the UK relatively uncompetitive and contributed to current economic woes. Also, the lack of access to a readily available and talented workforce after COVID has dampened Japanese enthusiasm for expanding trade in services with the UK. The EU Commission sponsors training programs that attract talent throughout the 27 member countries. A talented pool of EU engineers is a significant attraction for Japanese automobile manufacturers, especially with the conversion to electric vehicles. In short, Japanese companies face difficulties steering through the post-Brexit trade framework.

Furthermore, two important enhanced trade agreements with Mexico and Canada were negotiated in 2021 and 2022, with the purpose of reinforcing the UK’s ambition to deepen trade links with North America. The trade continuity agreement (TCA) with Mexico is merely an updated version of the 2021 trade agreement with the EU. While the UK may be satisfied with the continuation of the TCA with Mexico, the British government seeks to beef up access to the Canadian market for poultry and achieve greater volumes of dairy products such as high-value cheeses and butter. This is more challenging and negotiations over the 2022 enhanced trade agreement with Canada remain ongoing.

Global security and the UK’s Indo-Pacific future

In 2021, Johnson initiated an Integrated Review of UK Foreign and Defense Policy. It argued for a strong defense against China and the UK’s contribution to strengthening democracy and the rule of law. Sunak has requested an update of this policy review which is expected later this year. In pursuit of the Integrated Review, Sunak signed a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, hailed as “the most important defence treaty between London and Tokyo since 1902.” Together with the trade agreement, the security policy “cements the UK’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific” as well as bolstering economic security. Under its terms, both nations will together train and deploy complex military exercises in the Indo-Pacific.

In 2021, then Prime Minister Johnson could proudly tout achieving AUKUS with the United States, Japan and Australia, but humiliating the French government had consequences. Significant patching up with French President Macron continues as Sunak seeks pragmatic relations with European colleagues as well as with the Indo-Pacific. On March 10th, French and British leaders will meet to discuss closer collaboration on a range of bilateral security and defense issues. Sunak seeks a wider UK re-engagement with Europe after years of Brexit-induced tensions. This rapprochement is significant and contributes to discussions on a European security framework and the development of military capability projects. Britain may no longer be a member of the EU, but the UK government is asserting its continued role as a European security partner.

Sunak’s steadier hand has calmed financial markets, improved trade relations and asserted Britain’s desire to be considered a global partner. The question is the cost of such ambitions. With GDP growth at 4 percent in 2022, down from 7.6 percent the previous year, inflation at 8.8 percent, the IMF forecasting economic contraction of 0.6 percent in 2023 and continuous strikes by public sector workers, Sunak’s ability to sustain his global outreach will be severely tested.

About the Author

Diana Villiers Negroponte

Diana Villiers Negroponte

Global Fellow; Author "Master Negotiator: James A. Baker’s Role at the End of the Cold War"
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more