20 October 2021

Global Britain shouldn’t forget about its own back yard

By Aliona Hlivco

Global Britain is planting its flag on the world stage – those were the words with which Liz Truss stepped into her new role as Foreign Secretary. 

There’s no shortage of challenges ahead of her: from French chagrin at the recent AUKUS deal to the rising threat of China in the Indo-Pacific and salvaging a much-hyped trade deal with the US – a prospect certainly not help by the continuing ructions over Northern Ireland. If Truss is to put some flesh on the bones of ‘Global Britain’ it will mean plenty of hard work and an avowedly multilateral approach.

Nowhere is this more important than in the UK’s immediate neighbourhood. While there are certainly still hard feelings over Brexit, particularly among some EU member states, Truss seems to have adopted an unorthodox approach to building direct ties with European states – a regional one.

Take the meeting earlier this month between Truss and her counterparts from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Not only was there agreement on closer cooperation on regional security – a vital issue in the light of the threat from both Russia and China – but the official communiqué looked forward to all sides ‘meeting regularly to discuss shared foreign and security policy priorities and explore opportunities for economic co-operation, including with other regional partners’. This cordial get-together with the Baltic states is a fine example of how the UK can cultivate an independent presence in central and eastern Europe, bypassing Brussels to cement relationships with individual states.

It also makes sense to start mending fences in eastern Europe. Western European allies may be less willing to engage in this kind of relationship-building, but eastern nations should be more than prepared to grasp Britain’s hand of friendship. The Baltic states are as good a place to start as any, given their long-standing diplomatic relations with the UK, and the large Baltic expat community in Britain.

Other regional clusters could be trickier to navigate, but are still worth exploring. The Visegrád Group of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, ought to be high on the agenda. The quartet, also known as the ‘V4’, is on the front line of both the migration crisis and an ever more assertive Russia. And the V4 is far more than a talking shop – its members have already joined forces under the umbrella of the Visegrád Battlegroup and held several military exercises under the auspices of the NATO Response Force. The Visegrád group is also well worth cultivating from a trade perspective. If counted as a single entity, the V4’s economy would be the fifth largest in Europe and twelfth in the world, as well as the fastest-growing in the EU.

Important though these new alliances will be, Britain should not just focus only on regional grouplets. The bigger picture in eastern Europe includes the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ (3SI) (championed on this site by Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski), which links 12 EU member states located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. It includes the three Baltic states, the four Visegrád members, along with Austria, Slovenia and Croatia by the Adriatic, and Bulgaria and Romania near the Black Sea. Taken together the 3SI countries cover almost a third of the EU’s territory and a quarter of its population, and produce 19% of the EU’s GDP. The fact Donald Trump attended the 2017 3SI Summit is a sign of how seriously it is being taken on a geopolitical level. The UK too should see the 3SI as a chance not only to build better relations with near neighbours, but to enhance its status across eastern Europe as an ally in the fight for democracy and liberal values.

The Black Sea region in particular has become the epicentre of the fight between aspiring liberal democracies and Putin’s illiberal aggression. Not only has Russia illegally annexed Ukrainian territory in Crimea, but it continues to occupy one fifth of the territory of another Black Sea state – Georgia. Tensions have been further stoked by the Kremlin continuing to militarise the Crimean peninsula, while sealing off access to the neighbouring Azov Sea. More worryingly still, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence reports that Russia is restoring Crimea’s nuclear infrastructure, which was given up by a newly independent Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.

What can Britain do to help secure peace in this tumultuous part of the world? A good start would be to engage and rebuild relationships with countries like Azerbaijan and Turkey, especially now the latter is now hosting up to 10 million refugees from Africa and the Middle East, including a recent influx from Afghanistan. Given its as a key Nato ally, Ankara cannot be left on its own to deal with what is increasingly a security issue as well as a humanitarian one. What started off as a Turkish problem should be addressed with a shared response from Western countries, including the UK. What’s more, in the case of countries whose leaders may not be paragons of liberal democratic values, closer ties will give Britain more influence when it comes to delicate domestic questions around civil rights and the rule of law.

So, while much of the recent focus in British foreign policy has been on the Indo-Pacific, the combination of trade and security cooperation with European partners could mean some quick wins and valuable political capital, which could in turn prove useful in the wrangling over the Northern Ireland Protocol. And while the commentariat might be keeping their powder dry about what Truss’ tenure at the FCDO holds, my own conversations with diplomats from central and eastern Europe have been overwhelmingly optimistic, with some even hailing a ‘new dawn’ for Global Britain. To make the most of it, Liz Truss musn’t lose sight of the allies in her own back yard.

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Aliona Hlivco is Strategic Relations Manager at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.