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Britain is on 'back foot' globally

The UK as a country on the world stage is "undoubtedly" on the back foot right now, the director of an independent international affairs think tank has warned.

Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, noted there was a "bit of an identity crisis" unfolding inside Britain.

Speaking during a media briefing on the foreign policy challenges facing the next government, Dr Niblett said the issue of the UK potentially holding a referendum on its continued membership of the European Union in the next parliament, if David Cameron won a majority on May 7, was one that was "likely to consume the country" for at least a two-year period after the election.

He said: "I think undoubtedly the UK as a country on the world stage is on the back foot right now. For two principle reasons. One is that there is a bit of an identity crisis going inside the UK about who the UK is, what the UK is and in particular that identity crisis is connected with its external relations through the question about Europe."

The Europe issue he said was consuming a lot of the political debate among the Conservative Party, adding it was "riven again" 25 years after former Tory prime minister John Major saw his party face the same conundrum.

On Britain's standing, he said: "Europe, the question about where Britain stands in it, has put it on the back foot and has also weakened its voice within European circles."

The UK's absence from the Minsk agreement in February, he added, was "symbolic".

The question of Scottish independence, he said, also put the UK on the back foot, while he described Britain as being in an almost "post-Vietnam tired phase" following the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dr Niblett said: "There's a loss of political trust of the British people in their leaders on foreign policy, and that's simply compounded by the global financial crisis - but there's also a loss of deeper trust in government competence."

Britain's economy, he said, was still a significant factor looking ahead at foreign policy.

He said: "Any party that wins power is sustaining commitments on social spending, health, education, pensions, where do you make the cuts? You make them in issues like defence, the Foreign Office, potentially even in the future intelligence, which has come out fairly well so far.

"So with the economy in trouble, questions over the public's appetite for intervention and the issues of identity, Scotland, and Europe, I think you see the UK in a tough position - possibly in retreat for a period."

The event was chaired by Quentin Peel, Mercator senior fellow of the Europe Programme at Chatham House and former foreign editor at the Financial Times, and held in partnership with the Foreign Press Association.


From Belfast Telegraph