Britain is lost at sea with little hope of being rescued, says Renew's Gwen Jones.
Politics is getting noisier. It’s unfashionable nowadays for politicians not to provide an immediate response to events, whether it be glittering praise or seething condemnation. The new politics is loud, brazen and frankly outrageous, and the stately reservation of yesterday seems almost entirely obsolete.
It’s hardly surprising then, that in this kind of climate, silence is confounding. When big things happen, it’s not often that we’re met with...nothing. So when it comes to diplomacy, perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the immense power of silence. Exhibit A; the response, or glaring lack thereof, from the EU to the UK’s seizure of an Iranian Oil Tanker in the Mediterranean earlier this month.
In light of intelligence that the ship was carrying oil bound for Syria, Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picado had seized the tanker aided by the British Royal Marines. The grounds for this, he said, lay with EU sanctions against the Syrian government. According to the British, the 2.1 million barrels of oil onboard the vessel could have been used to power military forces operating alongside Russia in the Hama region of Syria.
Far from a quiet affair. And yet there was nothing to be heard from the EU - no statement, no hat-tip, no nod of gratitude. The fact that this stupefying wall of silence comes from one of our closest allies makes this even more astonishing; even more so considering the UK’s actions were taken in the name of the EU’s very own sanctions.
Another flagrant silence came just a few days later when the Iranian government sent retaliative forces to hound an Isle of Man flagged BP supertanker in the Straight of Hormuz. The British were forced to send a warship to the region in order to accompany their commercial fleet, effectively rendering them complicit in the US’s military strategy to protect the international shipping corridor. The EU again said nothing. This time, their silence reflected a frosty condemnation of the UK’s clumsy attempts to entertain American military operations, undermining the EU’s delicate diplomatic endeavours with Tehran.
And yet, the EU was not the only palpable absence. Despite the US’s initial glee at the UK’s seizure of the Iranian Grace I tanker, Iran’s retaliation was met with trifling support. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered only the following response: “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships. The US has a responsibility to do its part.”
The special relationship with Britain’s supposed closest ally after Brexit is also under strain due to events in the Gulf. While the US is seeking its own international naval coalition to protect against Iranian threats to the Hormuz shipping canal, the UK and several European partners are pursuing their own, which, according to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, reflects the difference in agendas between Europe and the US with regards to Tehran.
In light of the US’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal - to which the UK remains fully committed - there are concerns over whether the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of belligerent language, hefty sanctions and military force on Iran is at odds with European objectives.
And thus, the UK finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Firmly, and perhaps irreconcilably, at odds with one (or both) of its closest and most important international allies. While this may seem like a unique set of circumstances, in fact, the Iran crisis is deeply emblematic of the kind of international support the UK can expect from its neighbours after Brexit. If Britain chooses to succumb to the whims of an ever-more contentious US administration, the wedge between Britain and the EU 27 will continue to grow. And yet, close cooperation from the US would be vital in the otherwise crippling context of a hard Brexit.
All this seems a far cry from the ‘Global Britain’ promised during the run-up to the 2016 referendum. Rather, these are the quandaries of an island nation out all on its own.