The EU helps the UK secure foreign policy goals more effectively than we could on our own, says Andrew Woodcock.

Is Britain too close to an EU alleged to be weak internationally? Or dragged into Continental affairs at the cost of traditional global perspectives? Or right to fear a dilution of influence over British overseas interests because of EU foreign policy?

These are serious questions. But they misunderstand the essence of EU foreign policy formation, the benefits for Britain and the central role Britain plays.

The EU may not project itself as a superpower, but it is the world's largest trading block and by far the largest aid donor throughout the developing world. Combined, Member States enjoy unrivalled cultural links to many parts of the world and major clout in our European neighborhood. Likewise the UN: when the EU has a common position, other states defaulting to the EU position often automatically assure 50 votes before any proactive EU lobbying. Such is the scope for informal leadership, and UK initiative lies at the heart of this. EU soft power is an indispensable complement to US hard power in championing peace and freedom. And what value should we place on UK-inspired pro-business EU approaches in the WTO?

Geography still matters. While remaining a global player, Britain gains hugely from Europe's stability and prosperity, and suffers unimaginably from Europe's conflicts. It is testament to the EU's great success that we can choose to forget that Europe's peace is not a given – and certainly was not for many centuries. Neither are constructive relations between Britain and the Continent. They must remain top foreign policy priorities. Everybody, including Britain, needs good neighbours, and that means active British engagement in Europe.

In a crowd of 28, Britain's voice could risk being drowned out. But in reality, Britain's global reach and influence, second-to-none diplomatic infrastructure and understanding of the world are tacitly acknowledged by many European officials. This gives a natural leadership status. Thanks to EU structures for regular dialogue Ministerial and official levels, Britain has core Continental allies (more than some have us believe) who are instinctively sympathetic to Britain's viewpoints come thick or thin. This counts in foreign policy.

The EU is an "objectives multiplier" ? it helps member states secure foreign policy goals more effectively than they could on our own. In a multi-polar and interconnected world, none cannot tackle alone many of the tricky issues requiring global responses or international consensus ? among them the environment, violent extremism, support for democracy and religious freedom. In some areas of key concern, other member states wield deeper influence than Britain that can coordinate well with UK approaches, such as on Russia, Ukraine or Francophone Africa. Britain does not always have clout to be effective on its own, such as with China or regional trade blocks. While being the former colonial power confers great benefits, it occasionally limits effectiveness in delivering crucial messages alone. For maintaining influence around the world, being part of something bigger matters.

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The EU gains remarkably from not being a conventional state. Its breadth of participation, ability to focus on issues and, importantly, absence of hidden agendas give it unique credibility for convening dialogue to promote outcomes that Britain supports on seemingly intractable issues – such as Iran and the Western Balkans.

For sure, EU processes can be slow, its institutions must avoid mandate-creep and Member States do not always agree. Happily, their hands are not tied, as there is a veto on foreign policy. The Member States can (and do) work with others and in other fora when it suits them. But we operate through them in the knowledge that EU membership makes our voices more effective- for example, it helps make Britain a shaper in NATO rather than a taker. Britain still conducts its own robust bilateral relations- not least with the US, India and dynamic Asian economies. The Commonwealth, the largest voluntary grouping of nations, is as important as ever.

These are crucial benefits of a common foreign policy. Few if any of the larger members states would want to be forced into unified EU positions. The EU only has a foreign policy when all Member States, including Britain, agree to it. "Both and" must be Britain's approach. We can all but have our cake and eat it.

Crucial but intangible strengths often get noticed more if taken away. So it would be here. Effective EU participation boosts Britain's long-term standing in an ever more complex world. Over 50 years, politicians from all parties in government have seen the value in this. Margaret Thatcher summed it up in Bruges: "On many great issues the countries of Europe should try to speak with a single voice". The power of 28 sovereign nations speaking as one can be powerful.

That EU voice is much the stronger, including for UK interests, for having Britain working constructively on the inside. The alternative would be to clamour for influence from without. More UK time would be spent tracking EU debates, and more resources and political capital lobbying on key issues. All the more so when Britain itself was being debated. After all, either you are at the table or you are on the menu. So if Britain left the EU, UK diplomatic costs would have to increase dramatically.

Is all this a price worth paying? Surely perceived freedom ultimately matters far less than getting your way in the world through a unique foreign policy apparatus that influences in ways beyond the reach of conventional diplomatic actors.

Andrew Woodcock is Director of Stabilitas Associates, an international relations consultancy. He was a UK diplomat for 25 years and is particularly focused on civilian military issues and on Britain having effective relations with the rest of the EU.

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