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Alok Sharma offers fleeting glimpse of a less chaotic ‘global Britain’

London Letter: Cop26 president provides welcome relief from Johnson’s chosen path

Almost a week after Alok Sharma brought down the gavel on Cop26 in Glasgow, the debate continues over whether the climate summit was an important step towards limiting global warming or an elaborate exercise in greenwashing. For Boris Johnson, it was a tipping point that will push the world towards more ambitious goals, and more than that, it was "global Britain in action".

“We will build on the historic Glasgow climate pact, which calls for countries to do better next year – accelerating the five-year cycle set out in the Paris Agreement. We will push for more ambitious goals, stronger plans and better implementation, and so we further narrow that gap to 1.5 degrees,” Johnson told the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London this week.

Most delegates in Glasgow agreed that Sharma did a good job as Cop26 president, using modest, quiet but assiduous diplomacy to shepherd almost 200 countries towards a shared final text. When he choked up on the podium last Saturday as he apologised for a last-minute change in the text, representatives from states large and small applauded him because they believed he had done his best to keep his promises and to maintain a transparent process.

Insofar as Sharma succeeded, it was because he chaired the process like the representative of a small or middle power rather than a major one

But it was on the floor of the plenary hall that a true picture of the distribution of global power emerged as huddles formed around the representatives of the US, the EU and China. All three powers bear responsibility for the inadequacy of the final agreement: China for its last-minute demand that coal should be "phased down" rather than phased out; the US because of its mean-spirited refusal to agree to meaningful compensation for poorer countries already suffering the effects of climate change caused by rich nations, and the EU for the poverty of its ambition in the negotiations.


But there was no question in Glasgow of any initiative gaining traction without the support of two out of three of the big powers and once the final text had the support of the US, China and the EU other countries fell into line. Outside the EU, Britain was unable to influence even its closest post-Brexit ally Australia, to say nothing of another major Commonwealth partner, India.

Insofar as Sharma succeeded, it was because he chaired the process like the representative of a small or middle power rather than a major one. In doing so, he reminded many of Britain’s partners of the country’s diplomatic strengths and the quality and expertise of many of its officials.

Sharma's style offered a glimpse of an alternative "global Britain" focused on international partnership and networks of soft power rather than vainglorious aspirations to project military power east of Suez. He will have an opportunity to deploy it for another year as Britain retains the Cop presidency and he seeks to cajole countries into keeping their climate promises or improving on them.

In his speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet, Johnson was unable to praise the internationalism behind the climate talks without taking a swipe at the EU

The British government's Integrated Review of foreign and defence policy implies an acceptance that Britain is now a middle power like France, Germany, Japan or Canada. But it cannot bring itself to spell it out or to avoid language about being a "leading" power or even a superpower in some areas.

The yawning gap in the Integrated Review is about Britain’s relationship with the EU, which is hardly mentioned by name in the document. Johnson’s failure to draw a line under Brexit – to accept that he has in fact got it done – is also the biggest conceptual obstacle in the way of settling into a new, realistic role in the world.

In his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Johnson was unable to praise the internationalism behind the climate talks without taking a swipe at the EU.

“Perhaps we were also helped in Glasgow by a collective sense of embarrassment at the way internationalism failed us during Covid: the squabbles about PPE, the crazy decisions of some countries, naming no names, to try to stop the export of vaccines to others, something we were victims of at the start of this year,” he said.

"And let me say – given all the speculation – that we would rather find a negotiated solution to the problems created by the Northern Ireland protocol, and that still seems possible. But if we do invoke article 16 – which by the way is a perfectly legitimate part of that protocol – we will do so reasonably and appropriately, because we believe it is the only way left to protect the territorial integrity of our country, and meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland under the Belfast Agreement."

UK negotiator David Frost last week stepped back from triggering article 16 but he rattled that rusting sabre again in the House of Lords on Thursday. So Sharma's version of global Britain, for all the praise it won last week, may have been nothing more than a short detour from the bumpy path Johnson has chosen.