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US Administration: UK Foreign Policy

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

10. What assessment he has made of the implications of the policies of the new US Administration for UK foreign policy. (908812)

12. What assessment he has made of the implications of the policies of the new US Administration for UK foreign policy. (908814)

I met Rex Tillerson in Bonn last Thursday and Friday. We had some very good conversations, and I am sure we will have many more meetings in the weeks and months ahead to entrench and deepen a relationship that has been part of the foundation of global peace and prosperity for the past 70 years.

Could the Foreign Secretary confirm that when he met the Secretary of State last week he said unequivocally that Her Majesty’s Government think the ban on travel proposed by President Trump for Muslim countries is simply wrong?

The right hon. Gentleman will know very well that the Government did not support the travel measures that were introduced by the Executive order. They were not something we would commend to this House and it was not the kind of policy we would like to see enacted in this country, and we made that very clear to our friends in America. It was by engaging constructively with the White House and others that we were able to secure the important clarification that the Executive order would make absolutely no difference to any British passport holder, irrespective of their country of birth.

I am pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary’s reports of the discussions he had with the Secretary of State, but will he tell us a bit more about how he plans to manage the important tripartite relationship between the UK, the EU and the US, post-Brexit?

The hon. Lady asks a good question. Obviously, on some things we will differ from our American friends—we have just had an example of that—but on some areas we will perhaps wish to stiffen the spines of our European friends. I can think of issues such as sanctions over Ukraine, on which some EU members are not in quite the same space as we are. As would be expected, the policy of the United Kingdom would be to stick up for UK interests and values and—if I can use a bit of jargon—to triangulate dynamically between the two.

On standing up for British interests, Mr Trump’s track record suggests that any deals he agrees to are likely to be to our disadvantage. What will the Foreign Secretary do to ensure that British businesses benefit from any deals with the United States, not just American ones?

If I may say so, it is important to be clear-eyed about American power and success in negotiating trade agreements and to recognise that we will have to be on our mettle to get a good deal for this country. Nevertheless, I have absolutely no doubt that we will be able to do such a deal. It is a great shame that in 44 years of EU membership we have not been able to secure a free trade deal with the United States. That is now on the table.

In his discussions with the American Secretary of State, did the Foreign Secretary discuss the best opportunity for a state visit by President Trump? Did he put forward my suggestion that the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers in 2020 would be a much better occasion for a state visit than one in the course of the next few months, which is likely to be a rallying point for every discontent in the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting suggestion; I am afraid to say that it is not one I had time to make to our American counterparts. Let us see how the matter of the state visit evolves. The invitation has been issued and accepted, and I am sure it will be a great success.

Next time he meets the Secretary of State, will my right hon. Friend tell him that if the current discussions between the US Department of Defence and the State Department lead to their recommending to President Trump that they put American ground troops in northern Syria to combat ISIS, the British Government will not be following them?

I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I am not aware of any such proposal. Nor do I think, having listened quite attentively to the language being used by the White House and the State Department, that we are going to see the imminent contribution of ground troops in that theatre. Nevertheless, the advent of the Trump Administration does offer the possibility of new thinking on Syria and the hope of a new way forward.

Last week, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) and I went to Jordan as guests of Oxfam, and we met a number of Syrian refugees, notably Khalid who lives in the Zaatari refugee camp. He was due to start a new life in America literally within the next few weeks. It is difficult to put into words his sense of despair that all his hopes and dreams for a new life have been shattered by President Trump’s decision to ban all refugees from going to America. When my right hon. Friend next gets the opportunity, will he please not hesitate to tell President Trump that this ban on refugees brings great shame on his country and that he should lift it immediately?

My right hon. Friend will know full well that we have already expressed our disagreement with the travel ban and the policy on refugees. I think she was in the House when I explained the Government’s view on that policy. By contrast, this country can be extremely proud of the fact that it not only supports that particular camp in Jordan—indeed, we have recently agreed another £30 million to support that individual operation—but is the second biggest contributor to the humanitarian effort in the region, with £3.2 billion already pledged.

But has policy triangulation not meant that the British Foreign Secretary is trying to anticipate what American policy will be and then to mimic it? Interpreting what American policy will be or who will be implementing it must be very difficult just now, so will he at least wait to see what the policy is before, for example, changing policies such as the two-state solution in the middle east?

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the policy on the two-state solution in the middle east remains unchanged not only for Her Majesty’s Government, but, so too, to the best of my knowledge, for the United States’ Government, to judge by the recent press conference. For the guidance of the House, let me just say that it is my general impression that the policy of the United States is migrating ever more towards a position of congruence with our policy rather than the reverse.

Was it the Foreign Secretary’s idea to offer a state visit to President Trump after seven days in office? Given that the Foreign Secretary once famously declared that he would not go to New York in case he was mistaken for Mr Trump, is there any chance that President Trump will not come to London on a state visit in case he is mistaken for the Foreign Secretary?

I am embarrassed to say that I was mistaken for Mr Trump in—I think—Newcastle, which rather took me aback. It also happened in New York, which was a very humbling experience for me. I cannot say who was the exact progenitor of the excellent idea to accord an invitation to the President to come on a state visit, but the invitation has been issued. It is a wholly appropriate thing for the British Government to do, and it will be a great success.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when there is fresh fighting in Ukraine and when Russia continues to carry out large-scale exercises close to the borders of the Baltic state, some of them with nuclear capable equipment, there has never been a time in recent years when our relationship with America and keeping NATO together have been so important for Europe as a whole?

My hon. Friend is completely right, which is why it was so important that our Prime Minister, on her very successful recent visit to the White House, secured from Donald Trump the 100% commitment to our NATO alliance, which has been the guarantor of peace in our times.

We know that Trump’s Muslim ban adopts Daesh’s narrative, which is that it is the west against Islam. In fact, the Home Secretary said that it would bolster terrorists at home and abroad. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence about the increased threat to UK national security as a result of Trump’s immoral and racist policies?

We remain constantly vigilant against the terror threat as a result of all international policies, but, as I have said before, the seven countries in question were previously singled out by the Obama Administration for particularly tough visa restrictions. The hon. Lady will be aware that this Government have already signalled their disapproval of the ban to which Opposition Members are rightly objecting.

Did Mr Tillerson quantify the length of the queue of countries seeking to do a free trade deal with the United States, and outline where Britain’s place was in that queue?

Rex Tillerson was absolutely clear that he regards the relationship with the United Kingdom as one of pivotal importance for his country. Indeed, NATO is of pivotal importance for the safety not just of European countries, but of the United States. He was also clear, of course, that the UK will be at the front of the queue for a new trade deal.

President Trump boasts of running a finely tuned machine, but the truth is that American policy is under review when it comes to all the world’s major crises—from Ukraine to Syria, and Afghanistan to North Korea. I hear from the Secretary of State that there is new thinking, but we have yet to see anything coherent coming out of America. The finely tuned machine has not so much stalled as not yet got going. The resulting vacuum is being filled by the Russians, with peace talks on Syria and Afghanistan taking place without US or UK involvement. Is the Secretary of State happy to keep waiting for President Trump’s cue or is he capable of thinking for himself? Will we see a British initiative in any of these countries; and, if so, where is he going to start and what is the plan?

The finely tuned machine that is the Labour party is a fine one to offer any kind of political advice to the American Administration. As the right hon. Lady knows very well, the UK has, in fact, been in the lead in trying to find a solution in Yemen, and in trying to maintain the commitment to AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia. She should recognise, in all fairness, that the current area of diplomacy being considered by the United States in respect of Syria is a course that the UK has principally advocated—one in which the Russians and the Iranians are separated in their interests, and we move towards a political solution and a transition away from the barbarism of the Assad regime.

I have to say that if that’s a plan, I’m a monkey’s uncle. The fact is that the Government have been frozen out of negotiations on some of the most pressing issues we face. Take Afghanistan, where there have been 450 British fatalities over 15 years. The American army general on the ground, John Nicholson, describes the fighting as having reached a stalemate that may take several thousand more troops to break. In the meantime, Russian-led peace negotiations are going on in the absence of America, the United Kingdom and, in fact, every other NATO member, so I ask the Secretary of State again: when will we start seeing some leadership from this Government?

If the right hon. Lady is referring to Russian-led peace talks in Afghanistan, I think she is in error. Perhaps she is talking about the Astana talks on Syria. It is strongly our view and the view of all Syria-supporting countries that those negotiations should resume as soon as possible in Geneva.

The right hon. Lady talks about the UK’s contribution to Afghanistan, and I think that she and the whole House can be very proud of the sacrifice made by those 456 British troops who lost their lives over the past 15 years. Hundreds of thousands of women in Afghanistan are now being educated as a result of the sacrifice made by British troops and the investment in that country by the British people. There are people who are now getting food, water and sanitation, which they would not otherwise have received.