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Bogged down in Brexit, Britain tries to flex G7 muscles

DINARD, France (Reuters) - When Jeremy Hunt sat down on Friday with rights lawyer Amal Clooney to advocate better protection for journalists, Britain’s foreign minister was at pains to stress its enduring importance on the world stage.

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Why, given the chaos of Brexit, should anyone pay attention at a time when the country was struggling to run itself, reporters asked him.

“Be in no doubt the United Kingdom will continue to play a leading role championing democratic values around the world,” Hunt batted back on the sidelines of a G7 summit.

“That’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we always will do.”

With Britain anxious to assert its influence and broker new trade deals globally as it prepares to leaves the world’s biggest trading bloc, Hunt in October set out plans to expand its diplomatic cadres after years of budget cuts.

The government in London plans to hire nearly 1,000 more diplomatic staff, open new embassies and boost language training - just as allies and close EU partners France and Germany are creating joint embassies and cutting diplomacy budgets.

“France and Germany are pretty much on the same wavelength with some small differences, but Britain is dominated by internal questions,” said Dominique Moisi, special adviser at the Paris-based IFRI think tank.

Last week in New York, Hunt’s French and German colleagues announced a “Multilateralism Alliance” without him just as Paris handed over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council to Berlin.

Britain remains a nuclear power and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and flexed its muscles on Thursday by calling for an emergency meeting at the Council to discuss an escalating power struggle in Libya.

On Friday, French diplomats sought to downplay the idea of London losing clout as it splits from Europe.

“I don’t think they will lose influence. They’re having these difficulties and we talk about (Brexit) all the time with them,” a senior French diplomat said. “I’d say the British will be even more active at the G7, NATO and other institutions.

“We work extremely well with them, have common priorities and they still have same positions as the Europeans.”

That may be so, but Hunt was set to leave the G7 meeting on Friday night, a day early, after a bilateral meeting with France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian to discuss... Brexit.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough and John Stonestreet