World leaders and diplomats have expressed bafflement at the no-show of senior British ministers at the Munich security summit, with some questioning whether “global Britain” has “gone introvert” just weeks after Brexit.
Britain is usually a prominent presence at the annual conference in Bavaria, where this year France’s President Emmanuel Macron, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi gathered to discuss issues from transatlantic defence co-operation to the security challenges posed by China and the impact of big tech on elections.
However, UK defence secretary Ben Wallace dropped out last week to be replaced by junior foreign minister Andrew Murrison, who was then suddenly sacked in the Cabinet reshuffle. James Cleverly, Mr Murrison’s replacement, was scrambled to the conference just two days into the job.
Over the past three days US politicians, including US defence secretary Mark Esper, repeatedly warned their European allies at the summit of the dangers of adopting Huawei technology in 5G networks, following the UK decision last month to approve a limited role for the Chinese telecoms company. But the lack of any British insight on this decision was notable.
The official reason given by Downing Street for the low key Munich approach was that Boris Johnson wanted all his senior ministers in London for a meeting of this new Cabinet on Friday. But foreign leaders expressed surprise at the idea that domestic political considerations had outweighed the chance to project an ambitious, international Britain just two weeks after its departure from the EU.
“The one nation that is nearly completely absent from [Munich] is the UK,” tweeted former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. “Very strange. Ministers were supposed to come, but then everyone withdrew. Has ‘Global Britain’ gone fully introvert?”
Nancy Pelosi, speaker in the House of Representatives, was more diplomatic when asked on Sunday whether she had been disappointed not to see a line-up of more senior British ministers at the conference. “We have respect for their decision,” said Ms Pelosi, who had led a bipartisan delegation of nearly 50 people to the summit. “I hope it’s not an indication of any diminution in their commitment to multilateralism.”
On the main conference stage, Britain’s relatively low turnout did not go unnoticed. Mark Sedwill, Britain’s top civil servant and national security adviser, appeared on a panel to discuss the geopolitical future of Europe. “Let me say how happy I am that you’re actually here,” said Nathalie Tocci, the event moderator and director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs think-tank, as she introduced him. “It’s great you’re here to represent your government, it would be even greater if others were present.”
Mr Sedwill replied that he hoped he could provide quality to compensate for the lack of quantity in Britain’s presence.
The UK’s attitude to the Munich summit this year has surprised attendees because this is a crucial juncture in British diplomacy. Ministers have been keen to reassure their EU allies in Brussels that Brexit will not weaken defence and security co-operation and are looking to maintain strong links, particularly with France and Germany.
Mr Johnson’s government is also embarking on a wide-ranging review of its defence and security strategy, which will focus in part on how Britain can assert itself as a trusted military partner to the US.
Peter Ricketts, former UK national security adviser, said it had been a “mistake” for senior British ministers not to go to Munich. “This has been the forum where world leaders discuss their strategy and we should be there, if our ambition is to be seen as an active and engaged in the world after Brexit,” Lord Ricketts said. “I fear it will look like Britain is off the air.”
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a former UK Labour foreign secretary, said it was “mystifying” that Britain had not sent a more senior contingent, arguing that the cabinet reshuffle and school half-term holidays were “not a good enough reason”.
“Intentional or not, the message has gone out that Britain doesn’t want to be here and doesn’t want to be part of the conversation,” said Mr Miliband.
The British approach echoes what some EU diplomats say is a lack of interest in establishing formal mechanisms for post-Brexit foreign policy co-operation, as opposed to ad hoc groupings. Britain’s apparent public diffidence to its closest neighbours and allies also contrasts sharply with the way it has heralded further-flung efforts to push its internationalist credentials after Brexit.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, travelled to Australia, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia this month promising a “bold new beginning for global Britain” to “promote ambitious free trade deals and Britain as a force for good”.
Britain’s decision to stay away from Munich will do little do quell European nerves that London might start to pull back from previously held EU positions to win favour in Washington, in particular over the Iran nuclear deal the US opposes.
Sophia Besch, a defence and security specialist at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, said Britain was still trying to figure out what global Britain meant. “Maybe the thinking was that there wasn’t a new high level message,” she said. “But in the debates on China and technology, a high-level UK voice would have been valuable.”