London, United Kingdom – With a trade deal agreed after years of tough negotiations, Britain’s exit from the EU’s economic and political orbit is imminent.
Much has been made of how relations between the UK and the EU will develop, but experts say that the historic divorce could also impact other critical areas of foreign policy – including trade and security in the Middle East.
Jonathan Hill, director of King’s College London’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies and a professor of international relations, said Brexit will alter the practicalities of day-to-day trade, with immediate effect.
“The import-export regimen will develop and change,” he said. “Companies [based in the Middle East] will need to conform to specific British standards and they will have to adapt because the rules will change slightly, particularly if they are exporting to Northern Ireland and if supply routes pass through continental Europe.”
There could also be UK divergence in sectors such as agriculture, where there are currently strict EU regulations in place.
“There could be a recalibration of trade and the UK may take a different, more relaxed approach to these agricultural goods,” he said. “You could see more Tunisian tomatoes and Moroccan spinach in the UK than previously. It could be a new market opening up for those countries.”
But more broadly, the UK may also seek to hone its relationships with particular countries in the region.
“The links between the UK and the Gulf will not diminish,” said Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
“The UK will try to maintain this special relationship. It was the overlord of these monarchies and it is striving to maintain its influence, along with the US, in order to maintain privileged access to these markets, who are huge buyers of weapons and who invest a lot of capital in the financial markets.”
According to Achcar, a UK government decision in November to reduce foreign aid and increase defence spending could be part of an aggressive effort by London to sell weapons in the Gulf countries.
“The UK is a major purveyor of weapons to the Saudis, and in some ways a key contributor to the war in Yemen,” he said. “Post-Brexit, it is looking forward to selling them more.”
Meanwhile, the EU’s role in the countries the UK has historic ties with could be diminished.
“Arguably, the EU will no longer have the UK influence in the Gulf states and countries like Jordan,” said Hill.
The withdrawal of Britain, he added, which has one of the highest military capacities in Europe, could see EU nations such as Germany and France adopt a less interventionist strategy in the Middle East.
“Europe will be able to give less attention,” he said. “You’ve already seen European governments supporting stability over democratisation.”
But he added that despite Brexit, there is likely to be a “broad alignment” between the UK’s diplomatic policy towards the MENA region and that of EU member states.
“Democracy promotion, human rights and good governance are mutual goals,” he said. However, this is “by virtue of shared interests rather than anything more deliberate.”
Instead, Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in November’s US Presidential Election is considered a potentially more significant event than Brexit.
“Had Brexit been completed under a Trump re-election, the possibility of the UK going alone again from the rest of Europe would have been certainly higher,” said Achar.
“But with the Biden administration, this is less likely. The US will be more inclined to work with the EU than the Trump administration would have.”
For some observers, the UK’s decision to support the Iraq War in 2003 is a prime example of its policy being closely aligned with the US.
But, they say, the current circumstances could lead to closer coordination with Europe.
“UK foreign policy hasn’t always been beholden to Brussels,” said Mohamed El Dahshan, associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Either the UK did its own thing or looked towards Washington more rather than Brussels. The enduring nightmare of Iraq is the lasting example of this. But the new US administration is more likely to coordinate with the EU. Paradoxically, it might push the UK’s foreign policy closer to that of the EU.”
This combination of Brexit and Biden’s election could have other consequences, such as spurring a new wave of discussion in areas of previous political deadlock.
Przemysław Osiewicz, an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, specialising in EU policy towards the MENA region, said Brexit could lead to fresh negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal and new conversations on Palestine and Israel.
“Maybe we will see new bilateral negotiations thanks to the efforts of the Americans and the British,” he said. “Trump was extremely pro-Israeli, but it was the best recipe for failure for bilateral negotiations. Now things could open up. The UK has already pushed for special trade deals with Iran to bypass US sanctions and it recognises Palestine.”
But for Turkey, which on Tuesday signed a free trade deal with the UK, Brexit could signal that Ankara’s bid for EU membership is easing – particularly in the face of growing tensions between Turkey and France.
“The UK was one of the biggest supporters of Turkish membership,” said Osiewicz. “Now the Turkish camp will be much weaker in the EU. The Turkish accession is much weaker.”
Osiewicz added that Brexit may see reduced humanitarian aid to the Middle East.
“The EU is the largest donor of humanitarian aid in the MENA region,” he said.
“In the past, the UK was a significant contributor. The EU may look to focus on rebuilding its own economies after the pandemic. That could have serious consequences for countries like Yemen or Syria, and the millions of refugees in Turkey and Lebanon.”
The UK’s recent merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development is seen as making this outcome even more likely.
“To remove DFID’s identity is a terrible idea,” said Dashan.
“The department was a world leader in development. The nature of the UK’s relationship with these countries will inevitably change because of it and not for the better.”