Europe after Brexit

Ambassador Karen Pierce, the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United Nations
Monday, October 29, 2018

Ambassador Karen Pierce, the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United Nations, discussed multilateralism in the UN and Europe after Brexit at a talk cosponsored by the European Studies Council and the European Union Studies Program on October 10. (view lecture)

The talk was moderated by Professor David Cameron, who serves as the Director of the Yale Program in European Union Studies. Lecturer and Senior Fellow Yuriy Sergeyev, who has served as Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the UN, introduced Ambassador Pierce, the first female UK Ambassador to the UN—widely considered the most prestigious post in the British diplomatic service—before she began her remarks.

During her opening speech, the Ambassador spoke about the importance of bolstering multilateralism in the UN amid what she described as increasing challenges to the “rules based-international order”—a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time. She noted that although reports of the death of multilateralism are likely “much exaggerated,” there is no doubt that international power dynamics, particularly between the West and Russia and China, are complicating the execution of the rules-based international order and making the foundations of the UN shakier.

“Since its foundation in 1945 the UN has always suffered from a gap between the noble purpose and the high levels of ambition of its founders and the reality,” the Ambassador said. “That’s not to say that it hasn’t done some truly amazing things… At its best, the UN is the protector and savior even of millions of ordinary citizens around the world, but it isn’t always fit for the purpose.”

In particular, Ambassador Pierce argued that adherence to the rules-based international order is being undermined by a “very uncertain and aggressive Russia,” citing the country’s actions in Crimea and the Donbass, its “tolerance, if not encouragement” of the Syrian authorities’ use of chemical weapons, and the Salisbury Novichok nerve attack. She also stated that the world is witnessing a “more assertive China,” but said that it is still very possible to work with China even if there are objections to the country’s actions in the South China Sea and its conduct surrounding certain human rights issues.

Despite serious challenges, however, Ambassador Pierce said that many are starting to rally to the defense of the rules based system. She explained that at the recent UN General Assembly in September, there was a “huge amount of sentiment” defending the UN, international law and the ethos of multilateralism. Though putting that sentiment into practice is a different issue, she added, very few leaders joined U.S. President Donald Trump in expressing a distinction between patriotism and globalism.

“Most leaders wanted there to be both [patriotism and globalism] at the same time,” she said. “That certainly is the view of the British government; these two concepts are not antithetical; they exist side by side.”

Pivoting to the issue of Brexit, the Ambassador acknowledged that it might seem strange to be arguing for a robust multilateral system as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. However, she contended that her country’s decision to leave the union does not constitute a threat to multilateralism.

“I don’t think the threat to multilateralism comes from countries or individuals, for that matter, exercising their inherent and legal right to withdraw from institutions and treaties,” she said, adding that the United Kingdom is following its democratic vote to leave the European Union.

The Ambassador further stressed that Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union does not mean the country is leaving Europe. She emphatically stated that the UK will still share Europe’s values; base its society around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; remain in NATO and come to the defense of NATO countries; and “unconditionally support Europe’s security and safety.” She added that though the exact terms of Brexit are under discussion, a resolution should be reached in the “coming weeks.” In terms of the nature of this resolution, the Ambassador said the UK hopes it will be based on a genuine partnership that enables free trade and enables Britain “to maximize the prospects of free trade for ourselves and for our partners.”

“We are hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement with our European Union partners, but we will always continue to work very closely with them in multilateral forums, whether that’s in the UN, whether its ad hoc in places like the [Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe], whether it’s coming together in the Human Rights Council,” she said. “We have too much in common to be easily divided.”

Ambassador Pierce became the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York in March 2018. Prior to this role, she served as the Director General for Political Affairs and Chief Operating Officer of the Foreign and Commonwealth in London, starting in 2016.


Written by Zainab Hamid, Timothy Dwight College, Class of 2019.