European headquarters of the United Nations

UK’s influence at UN would be in freefall post-Brexit if not for 0.7%

A new report by the UK branch of the United Nations Association states that the UK faces “considerable challenges in maintaining its current level of influence once it has exited the EU.”

The report recommends that the UK government needs to demonstrate its added value to the United Nations (UN), and adopt a principled and values-driven foreign policy if it is to maintain its current influence after it leaves the EU.

The researchers interviewed 29 participants, including UN diplomats, UK officials and individuals from non-governmental organisations.

The report warns that: “Brexit will have an impact on the UK’s standing at the United Nations. British diplomats will perform strongly but they will lose political capital because they are less able to align their campaigns in the Security Council and the General Assembly with the influence of their colleagues in Brussels.”

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Interviewees said that if it were not for the UK’s continued commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on Official Development Assistance (ODA), the UK’s reputation “would be in sort of free fall territory”. Nevertheless “the decline in UK influence [in New York] is palpable. It’s partly Brexit, but not only.”

The report suggests that the impact of Brexit can be offset and the UK’s influence maintained if the UK invests in multilateralism and provides clear principled, values-driven leadership.

Recommendations made by the report for the UK include:

  • Maintain resolutely the UK’s 0.7% commitment to foreign aid – a major source of soft power and influence.
  • Defend the legitimacy of UK leadership within the UN, which would provide for a more effective approach than maintaining the narrative of “Global Britain”. This can be achieved by continuing to develop a more inclusive and collaborative approach to the practice of “pen-holding” at the UN Security Council, including co-penholding with elected members, in ways that address the exclusionary effects of the practice. This is particularly important when emerging powers with resources to implement UK-negotiated mandates are elected to the council. It is significant in this respect that Germany takes up an elected seat on the council in 2019.
  • Provide specific policy ideas and resources from London, demonstrating the value of the UK in international forums. One such opportunity for the UK is Secretary General António Guterres’s call for a “quantum leap in collective action” on peace operations, including taking a leadership role in New York on implementing protection of civilian mandates. This could also provide a way of following through on foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s commitment to “do more within our budget on atrocity prevention”.
  • Address gaps in diplomatic capacity at the General Assembly, which will develop as the UK is no longer able to rely on EU for burden sharing and support.