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February 2017

Brexit could enhance the UK’s international influence, helping the government’s ambition for a global Britain. But we must tread carefully and aim for an ‘open Brexit’ to ensure success.

Enhancing Our International Influence 

 Aftershocks tend to become less intense with time. While the High Court ruling in November was another hard jolt following the referendum earthquake, the final judgement by the Supreme Court and the recent vote by the House of Commons felt more like the ground settling. Slowly, some semblance of certainty seems to be falling into place as our judicial and political institutions plot a way ahead in the wake of the decision to leave the European Union.

Commentators and people on both sides of the referendum divide, and both sides of the Channel, have voiced exasperation at the delays, calling for the UK to ‘get on with it’. The UK is now doing exactly that. And if handled in the right way, the process of leaving the EU could enhance our international influence, helping to kick-start the government’s ambition for a truly global Britain. Here’s why:

Within the EU our reputation has certainly taken a hit. A recent British Council survey of young people across several major European countries showed significant falls in positive perceptions of the UK. If we’re to turn this around, during what is a tough time for political relationships, it is vital we remain interested and engaged with the people and culture of our European neighbours. The UK’s cultural and educational ties with Europe long pre-date the European Union and should help to set a positive tone of our future relations with the continent.

Our research has shown that views of the UK as a global power have slightly increased

Outside Europe, in contrast, Brexit has so far created a significant positive boost for Britain’s reputation. Our research has shown that views of the UK as a global power have slightly increased. We are seen as a confident country seeking to make its own way in the world. Now is exactly the moment to capitalise on this. Successful alliances and enduring economic relationships depend on the bedrock of firm cultural ties. Prioritising stronger cultural and educational relationships will help secure the long term boost in global trade we will need outside the EU.

Overall, does the UK’s vote to leave the European Union (‘Brexit’) have a positive impact, negative impact, or no impact on: Your perception of the attractiveness of the UK overall? 


Data gathered by the British Council places our adherence to the rule of law, as well as our judicial, academic and political institutions towards the top of reasons that people respect our country. The referendum has challenged these bodies, often placing them at odds, but this constitutional competition is not necessarily damaging Britain’s reputation abroad, and could even enhance it. 

Soft power is driven largely by a nation’s behaviour, and handling Brexit in a way that respects the result of the referendum and has due regard for the rule of law, will be important for a country that wishes to be seen as a beacon for others. The Supreme Court’s decision and the resulting Parliamentary process shows the British constitution at its best. It highlights things that many people abroad find desirable about the UK: our adherence to the rule of law and the strength of our democratic institutions. Continuing constructive Parliamentary debate and scrutiny in the weeks and months ahead could further enhance that view.

The Prime Minister has made a powerful case for a Global Britain following our departure for the EU. The UK has many soft power strengths – our great universities, world-leading arts and cultural institutions, the BBC, our system of justice and a free press – which all have their part to play. Their international influence existed before the EU and can endure beyond Brexit, provided their engagement with the world is not undermined.

If the UK is to develop the international connections and trade agreements necessary for our future outside the EU, we should start by investing more in international engagement across culture and education, and by developing ties with current and future leaders in Europe and around the world. The UK also needs an ‘open Brexit’: one that maintains and grows the UK’s connections with the people, cultural, educational and scientific communities of Europe and the world – areas that are now more important than ever.

The UK can certainly achieve stronger long term global influence after it leaves the EU, but to achieve that we must seek an ‘open Brexit’ with strong cultural relationships at its heart.

John Dubber, Head of Policy and External Relations, British Council

See also