Skip to main content

EU: External Action Service

Volume 724: debated on Monday 17 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many British embassies they intend to close as a result of the deployment of the European Union External Action Service.

My Lords, there are no plans for any British embassies to close as a result of the deployment of the European External Action Service. The European External Action Service is about supplementing and complementing, not replacing, national diplomatic services.

My Lords, accepting that part of our foreign policy is now governed by the Lisbon treaty, does my noble friend, with all his experience, really think that it is necessary and appropriate to have an EU diplomatic service with a budget starting at £400 million a year, rising to €3 billion a year, with 6,000 staff—114 of them are paid more than the Foreign Secretary—in 137 countries, including 49 in Burkina Faso, 46 in Barbados, 32 in the Dominican Republic and six in Vanuatu, which has a population of 250,000? If, as the Commission says, all this has been done on a neutral-cost basis, deploying resources from one area to another, does that not show that there is a massive opportunity for economy and cutting spending in the EU?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is correct on that last point, but the global figure for personnel that I have is not 6,000 but 1,625, which is rather different from what he says. On the general question of the usefulness and worthwhile need for a combined diplomatic service, we take the view that this can help and, indeed, even save money in certain areas where combined efforts to deal with great international strategic issues are valuable. That is not every area. In some areas we want our own bilateral developments, but in some it is clearly more economic and effective to act together. We believe that this service will help, provided that it is carefully controlled, particularly on the cost side.

Will the Minister tell us what proportion of the figures rattled off by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, include Commission officials already in those posts who are busy trying to disburse the development programmes of the European Union? The noble Lord included some small developing countries, where I suspect that that is the case. Can the Minister give a little more specificity to his excellent point on the EAS being able to do certain things more effectively and economically than 27 member states each doing their own thing?

On the question of the global totals, it is a fact that a great deal of the personnel and cost diversion comes from existing activities being amalgamated under the new system. Of the 1,625 personnel whom I mentioned, 1,114 are existing personnel acting on external matters and will be brought together into one grouping, which we hope may save money. That is a sensible move, provided that costs are most carefully controlled. Will the noble Lord repeat his second question, as I have forgotten it?

I asked whether the Minister could follow up his excellent first answer, when he said that the EAS ought to be able to conduct certain forms of diplomatic activity collectively for the 27 member states more efficiently than the member states can do severally themselves and whether he had any suggestions. I suggested in a debate three months ago that things such as the analysis of the economy of the country where the post is could well be conducted in that way.

With respect to the noble Lord, the governing word is “ought”. This is a new institution and it has to prove its worth. It will no doubt be subject to some elements of conducibility like any other new organisation. It will have to establish its worthwhileness. There are areas where, by combining with our neighbours and other European member states, we can do much more, but we have to move carefully. We cannot assume that it will be a positive in every area. In some areas we can clearly do things much better by ourselves.

My Lords, do the Government agree that the European external service may well provide a great opportunity for UK science and industry to have projects, many of the most advanced of which are done across the EU? We really need an EU presence and promotion of these projects, which I believe should be an important part of the external service.

I very much hope so, but of course that applies to other nations and other areas of the world as well. We want close scientific links with our American friends and with the rising powers of Asia, as well as with our European Union neighbours. Certainly, this may help as far as our immediate neighbourhood is concerned.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Dar es Salaam, from which I have just returned, there is a Europe house, which contains the British high commission, the German embassy, the Dutch embassy, the European Commission office and the DfID office? Does he agree that that is an admirable example of effective co-operation and cost saving? Will he undertake to ensure that similar establishments are put into other similar capitals?

I hear what my noble friend says and hope that that will save money. As to the administration of diplomatic posts around the world and the role of the EAS posts, we must leave that to the Commission, but always within the strict framework that the budget is tight—in my view, it should be tighter still. If this is a worthwhile return and helps our national aims and diplomatic services, it is worth while pursuing.

My Lords, does the Minister welcome the fact, as I do, that, under the EAS, development policies become a shared competence between the European Commission and the member states of the European Union? Furthermore, does he agree that, under the Lisbon treaty, EU policies such as development should complement and reinforce one another?

The Lisbon treaty is a fact and these are the aims under it. However, I emphasise, and I know that the noble Baroness with her experience will agree, that these are early days. It is an advance into a new area, where we are trying both to save money and to combine our efforts with our European member state neighbours in certain areas, but not all. We welcome this as far as it goes. Clearly, we need to see how this develops from here.