Unsurprisingly, Brexit was at the heart of yesterday's very consequential election in the United Kingdom, as it has dominated domestic politics since the June 2016 referendum. The general public, frustrated by the paralysis caused by Brexit, hoped that this election would finally break the deadlock. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned relentlessly on the promise to “get Brexit done.” Bolstered by his clear victory in the election and the comfortable majority for his Conservative Party, Johnson will now have the chance to do just that and ensure his country’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union.
But the constant focus on Brexit during the campaign has obscured equally important foreign policy challenges that will require close attention. Once out of the European Union, the United Kingdom might gain some autonomy of action. But it will also have to navigate a more uncertain international context marked by renewed great power competition. Johnson and his government will not be able to avoid unpleasant choices, especially about how it engages with the European Union, the United States and China.
As Jennifer Rankin pointed out in The Guardian, this new challenging reality for the United Kingdom will start the very day after Brexit. Exiting is just phase one of the process. Phase two will involve initiating a fundamental negotiation to determine the future terms of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, especially over trade.
Johnson has claimed repeatedly that such negotiations would be straightforward, opening the prospect for a potential agreement within 11 months. But most trade negotiators believe that this turn of events would be highly unlikely, since trade agreements are notoriously complex and hard to complete. The EU, additionally, has already warned the United Kingdom that any accord would involve trade-offs. If Johnson pushes for regulatory changes that diverge dramatically from EU rules, British industry will have to contend with more restrictive access to the EU’s Single Market.
Moreover, the decisions in the U.K.-EU trade negotiations will have ramifications beyond their bilateral discussions. The Conservative Party manifesto placed great emphasis on its desire to aggressively negotiate free trade agreements with other key countries, including the United States.
However, achieving a substantive deal with both the U.S. and EU is likely to be elusive. The very different regulations in the EU and the U.S., especially over agricultural standards and drug pricing, will be controversial and are likely to stand in the way.
London will have to make a similar choice – gravitating more toward Washington or Brussels – when it comes to Iran. The U.S. and EU have been increasingly at odds over Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018.
So far, the United Kingdom has sought to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, along with France, Germany and the other signatories. But, facing the United States’ continued campaign of “maximum pressure” and tightening sanctions, Iran has already taken several steps to stop complying with parts of the JCPOA. If the Iran nuclear deal continues to whittle away, this would create a greater dilemma for the Johnson government: Preserving the status quo would do it no favor in Washington, but abandoning the deal to side with Trump would equally deeply anger the U.K’s European partners.
Finally, such a delicate balancing act will also apply to China, and not just to transatlantic relations. Remarkably, the Conservative Party manifesto for this election did not make a single reference to China. But it is not a subject that Johnson will have the luxury of ignoring in coming years.
Post-Brexit, Johnson will be keen to turn the U.K. into a major hub for foreign investment and to seek greater trading opportunities outside of Europe. And China naturally plays a key role in that perspective, accounting already for 3.6 percent of U.K. exports and 7 percent of its imports. It is little surprise that Johnson warmly praised China’s Belt and Road Initiative this past summer.
At the same time, the U.K. faces greater pressure from the U.S. to take a harder line toward China. London recently postponed, until after the election deciding whether or not to allow Huawei to participate in building the U.K.’s 5G network. Because of Washington’s constant lobbying, Johnson is well aware that siding with Huawei could jeopardize the United Kingdom’s cooperation with its “five eyes” partners — Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand. But freezing the Chinese company would not be cost-free either, and Beijing would likely retaliate by withholding investments to the U.K.
Taken together, these three examples – over trade, Iran and China – reflect the deep challenges ahead for Johnson beyond Brexit. The United Kingdom will not simply be exiting the European Union. It will also have to fundamentally redefine its foreign policy in a more dangerous international context.
Garret Martin and Michelle Egan are professors at the School of International Service of American University, and co-directors of American University’s new Transatlantic Policy Center. Follow Michelle Egan on twitter @MichelleEgan14.