Friends, partners or rivals? The UK election manifestos and the space for foreign policy cooperation with the EU

Predicting the future in the twists and turns of UK politics and Brexit is for the brave or the foolish. Taking political party manifestos as a reliable guide to future international policy deliverables is only marginally less naive. But what indications do these documents give us of potential future international collaboration?

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    The Conservative party manifesto is surprisingly mild in its rhetoric, and ultimately overlaps with the political programme of Ursula von der Leyen’s new “geopolitical” European Commission across quite a few foreign policy areas. This includes a commitment to the “rules-based international system” and commitments on peacebuilding and humanitarian action, development assistance and climate diplomacy.

    Furthermore, selected references in the document make it clear that the Conservatives still want voters to believe they will be able to pick and choose when and where they cooperate with Europe. However, if the Conservatives win the elections, the room for cooperation will depend greatly on how difficult trade talks in 2020 turn out to be.

    The Labour party’s foreign policy priorities also overlap with the new von der Leyen Commission in several areas, including a very strong commitment to multilateralism, a desire to be champions on climate change and gender equality, and wider commitments on development and peacebuilding.

    However, the Labour manifesto’s strong postcolonial discourse and appeal to justice and human rights contrasts with von der Leyen’s more interests-based approach to international affairs in general and development cooperation in particular. The Labour party’s desire to position the UK more firmly as an ally of developing countries and of oppressed people around the world might ultimately place the UK and the EU on different paths, just as surely as the Conservatives’ nationalist discourse would.

    The liberal internationalist approach to international affairs adopted by the Liberal Democrats might fit more closely with the positioning of the new European Commission, but their strong commitment to human rights and democracy around the world also contrasts with the absence of these in the foreign policy section of von der Leyen’s political programme or mission letters. Furthermore, despite some expected gains from a low base in the upcoming elections, the Liberal Democrats are highly unlikely to be in a position to lead a government.

    On foreign policy, the Scottish National Party’s manifesto is more succinct, but also shows a strong commitment to multilateralism, development cooperation, and a focus on the rights of minorities around the world. The manifesto commitments also give an indication of the type of independent country Scotland would want to be if the SNP could achieve their manifesto goal of achieving independence. The SNP indicates its willingness to participate in a “progressive alliance to lock the Tories out of office”.

    While the Conservative party briefly commits to multilateral fora as an outlet for British influence and security, the Labour party frames multilateral fora as spaces of international solidarity, particularly with the developing world; the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to multilateralism is framed in terms of defending the liberal rules-based international order; and the SNP focuses on “being a good global citizen”.

    Human rights feature far more prominently in the agendas of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats than in the Conservative manifesto, but a commitment to human rights in foreign policy is still present in the latter. The SNP include a strong focus on minorities whose rights are being undermined in the Middle East and Asia.

    All three major UK-wide parties point to the UK’s strong record on international peacebuilding and humanitarian action, while the SNP highlights the need for action on the role of women. This overlaps with the EU’s commitments in this area, and would potentially open the way for cooperation, even under a Conservative-led government. Indeed these are areas in which the Conservative-led government previously said it would like to maintain UK-EU international cooperation.

    All four parties commit to the target of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on development aid, although the language used on international development varies greatly. The Conservatives couple the ‘proud’ maintenance of this target that many believed was under threat with the commitment to “do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient”.

    The Liberal Democrats and the SNP are the only major parties to mention the Sustainable Development Goals, but Labour adopts a multifaceted approach to international development, in which trade, aid, peacebuilding, human rights and climate justice form a cohesive whole. This is often coupled with a postcolonial critique of what Britain has done in the past, which is in stark contrast to the Conservatives’ rhetoric on Britain as a force for good in the world.

    Labour and the SNP firmly commit to maintaining a separate Department of International Development (DFID), while the Conservatives do not either commit to maintaining or scrapping a separate specialised ministry. The Brexit Party talks of halving and redirecting aid and the now very small UKIP explicitly mentions scrapping DFID. However, all major parties’ commitments to maintain the level of development assistance provides a tangible potential area for UK-EU international collaboration if there is sufficient political interest and institutional innovation on both sides.

    Indeed, the UK’s continued achievement of and adherence to the 0.7% of GNI for international development puts it on a par with only three other EU countries that currently adhere to this commitment. Yet, as these manifestos show, adhering to these targets can be combined with vastly different international policy agendas, and the partnerships that they support can vary greatly.

    Africa as a continent does not get a special mention in any of the UK manifestos, which tend to focus on the wider framing of the UK’s global engagement, with regional priorities in terms of peacebuilding, conflict prevention and human rights focusing mainly on the Middle East,North Africa and South Asia. This contrasts with the prioritisation of a future ”partnership of equals” with Africa by the von der Leyen Commission and the growing focus on Africa by politicians in key EU member states such as Germany.

    All three parties put climate change and climate diplomacy at the heart of their manifestos, although again using different framing (Labour for instance use the term “climate justice) and with varying levels of ambition. However, regardless of which party comes to power, the UK will need allies to pursue its goals on this front and the new Commission, which will be pushing full speed ahead with its own Green New Deal, is clearly the most obvious ally on this front.

    The only reference in the Conservative manifesto to security cooperation with Europe is the statement that they “will stand up to foreign countries that threaten the stability of Europe”, which contrasts with the position of the Conservative government under Prime Minister May that proposed a comprehensive security partnership. Labour makes a firm commitment to prioritise a UK-EU security treaty, even in the case of a Labour Brexit, framing the UK’s “security co-operation arrangements with EU neighbours” as vital to the UK’s own security.

    Ultimately, the ability of the von der Leyen Commission and of any new British government to realise real progress on cooperation in these foreign policy areas will depend in significant part on whether or not they manage to jointly forge a constructive overarching future relationship. And therein lies the crux of a significant challenge for both the incoming EU and UK political leaderships and their administrations in 2020.

    Few informed European observers think a comprehensive future EU-UK relationship can be negotiated and agreed by the end of the proposed implementation period in 2020, despite what is implied in the Conservatives manifesto. Yet Britain’s role in the world will stand to lose if they cannot come to some accommodation, while the EU would lose a valuable friend and ally on the global stage.

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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