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Statement made by Professor Jason Ralph to the UN All-Party Parliamentary Group, 19 February.

Thank you Lord Hannay, and let me start by thanking you and the UNA-UK – especially Fred Carver – for organising this event to day and publishing the report. And let me also thank the British Academy, whose programme “Tackling UK’s International Challenges" made the research for the report possible. 

The report examines the way in which the UK’s decision to leave the EU has influenced the UK’s standing and role at the United Nations; and when we started the research we genuinely wondered if there would be enough material to write a report. 

Britain at the UN in many ways is so far removed from the referendum question and the specific issues of European Union. What is more, unlike membership of the EU, the UK position at the UN seemingly commands consensus across the political spectrum. 

Internationalists see it as a place to peacefully tackle global challenges like conflict, human rights and sustainable development; and nationalists see the permanent seat in particular as recognition of UK great power status and ability to punch above its weight. 

Yet, there is a difference in thinking through the impact Brexit has on the UK. 

Where leave campaigners have engaged on this question, they have argued Brexit will make no difference or will in fact protect the UK’s permanent seat on the Security Council from a process of Europeanisation. (Chris Muspratt FAC 2016) 

Others put the question in the context of shifting power balances and a longstanding narrative of UK decline to argue Brexit weakened the UK’s claim to be a great power with special privileges at the UN. 

To get the sense of how Brexit was perceived in the UN we interviewed 28 practitioners from 15 countries. These were people working on UN issues, or have experience working in the UN system itself.   

For me at least, 3 stand out findings emerged: 

  • The first, was the high regard in which the UK mission in New York is held. The mission there was described as “top of the league” in terms of its diplomatic skill and professionalism, and there was little sense that the working relationships they have cultivated would change, at least in the short term. There was – as one interviewee put it – a “muscle memory” that protects these working practices. If anything, there was sympathy for the delegation, especially in terms of the extra work it now faced in the General Assembly; and the difficulty of defining a strategy that fits with the governments "Global Britain" tag. 
  • The second, is that no-one we interviewed pointed to a threat to the UK Security Council seat from Europeanization, although people were aware of the German call for a single European seat.  There was concern that Brexit would make it more difficult to align EU resources to UK priorities. Somalia was held up as an example here, and there was wider a sense that French priorities on the Council would be supported by the EU. This wasn’t raised by interviewees or the report as it was announced too late, but the Franco-German announcement of the first joint presidency takes on additional significance in this context. 
  • Third, it is quite clear that the cross-party commitment to 0.7% of gross national income development aid is crucial to the UK’s standing and influence at the UN.  As one interviewee put it:  “you have to bear in mind that for 70 percent of the members the UN is about development, it's not about conflict or security, it's about development”; and another “its one of the first things that a lot of G77 developing countries would look at as crystallization of your commitment […] you can query how effective it is in lots of cases, but it just shows a certain commitment and seriousness around your engagement”;  “the fact that the UK has legislated it's 0.7% [and] this is somehow bipartisan in your system is extraordinary. … it's a huge amount of money. And so, this has a huge amount of leverage … where you're looking for levers I think development is a really important one.”   

One way of looking at this, when thinking about what "Global Britain" means, is that the UN is the most global of institutions and within that development is the most global of issues. Moreover, it is there that the UK seems to have a comparative diplomatic advantage. 

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