UK EU Referendum and the UK’s role on the world stage

Author: Richard Mark Hampson

The UK EU referendum will have significant important consequences for the UK’s international role. If the UK were to leave the EU, it would remain an important global player. This would be, not least, because of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.


However, the UK would be a more effective in support of progressive ends and the international system, if the UK remains in the EU. In the contemporary world, engaging in cooperative decision-making gives us more control, not less. It gives us global power, not the illusion of sovereignty. If we voted to leave, the UK would be less able to play an effective international role in support of progressive ends. For the following reasons:


The government has estimated that settling post-withdrawal arrangements could take a decade.  We would also need to develop new ways of working, as a non-EU state, with representatives of the EU institutions around the world and in international institutions – especially, given our permanent UNSC seat, at the UN in New York and Geneva. At least for a time, this would disrupt the UK’s diplomatic operations in these important bodies.


By being inside the EU, the UK has been able to use the bloc’s added clout to pursue foreign policy objectives more effectively. The EU brings with it greater scale than the UK would have on its own – in diplomatic reach, economic weight, and development assistance and other funding. From outside, the UK would be in a weaker position to bring EU action to bear on its priorities.

After voting to leave, the UK would retain a vital interest in the EU’s international action. The EU would remain the world’s largest trade bloc, a major development assistance donor and provider of political, financial, technical and security support around the world, including in post-conflict situations.  It would remain the organisation with the broadest political and economic reach in our continent and our neighbourhood. Geographical proximity, dense economic and human links, and shared values would often make the EU and its member states still the UK’s first foreign policy partner of necessity and choice. However, if the UK were not a member, shaping the EU’s action would be harder. Influencing the EU and its member states would become a greater foreign policy task, again diverting diplomatic capacity from other priorities.

In the EU, the UK has a unique position as the only country inside all major international organisations. This enables the UK to play a convening and coordinating role that helps to deliver more effective international action. The December 2015 Paris UN climate change conference was a recent example. President Obama has said: ‘When the climate agreement in Paris needed a push, it was the European Union, fortified by the United Kingdom that ultimately helped make that agreement possible’.

The loss of the UK’s place inside the EU would make the UK a less valuable partner for countries and organisations around the world. This would reduce our ability to catalyse international outcomes. President Obama has said: ‘We want to make sure that our partner…maximises its leverage…The UK will have less influence in Europe and as a consequence less influence globally…We like you having more influence. We like you being at the table helping to influence other countries.’  The leaders of Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand have also made clear they would like the UK to remain in.

For these reasons, the UK would be stronger, safer and more influential internationally if it remains in the EU.