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European External Action Service

Volume 789: debated on Monday 12 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many British nationals are currently employed in the European External Action Service (1) directly, and (2) on secondment from Her Majesty’s Government; and what is their assessment of the impact on the effectiveness of the Government's diplomatic efforts when those staff leave that Service.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Question. Ninety-six British nationals are employed by the European External Action Service, with 15 on secondment from Her Majesty’s Government. The Government believe that it is in the UK’s and the EU’s interests to agree a future secondment programme to EU institutions. The Government’s Foreign Policy, Defence and Development paper made it clear that the UK sees value in negotiating a reciprocal exchange of foreign and security policy experts and military personnel. This will be a matter for negotiation.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The External Action Service was set up under the very distinguished commissionership of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and the British Foreign Office served and shaped much of it. We now appear to be throwing that away. Do I gather from what the Minister said that active negotiations are proceeding with the European External Action Service, as opposed to other parts of the Commission, for our staff to remain within the External Action Service, helping to shape European policy?

I thank my noble friend for his question. Upon leaving the EU, the UK will pursue an independent foreign policy. However, the interests that we will seek to project and defend will continue to be rooted in UK and EU shared values. We therefore wish to continue our co-operation. We should have a means to consult each other regularly and to work together where our interests align. We hope to be able to continue a constructive secondment programme in areas of mutual interest.

My Lords, given the very high reputation that British diplomats and diplomacy have throughout the world, despite pressure on resources—a reputation which, I might say, is independent of our membership of, and in fact predates, the European Union—should the British diplomats who, as the noble Baroness said, currently work for the External Action Service become redundant for any reason, would it not be sensible for their services to be transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I believe that he makes a very good point. It is way above my pay grade to make a commitment on that front, but I shall make sure that his idea is passed on to officials.

My Lords, our embassies work very closely overseas with others from the EU, including the External Action Service. How is the United Kingdom seeking to replicate the influence that that creates? Does the noble Baroness agree that our embassies would need to be strengthened if we left the EU, and have the Government estimated the cost of that?

The noble Baroness asked a number of questions, and I will try to answer her properly. I am thrilled that we have upgraded seven ambassador roles to the highest level, that an additional 50 diplomats will be posted to embassies across Europe, that we have created more than 100 roles in London and Europe, and that there will be an increase in spend. I hope the noble Baroness will allow me to write to her with the technical details of the exact spend.

My Lords, that is precisely the point that noble Lords have raised concerns about in this House. Brexit will mean that we will have to shift Foreign Office resources into the EU to cover for that sort of lack of expertise. Where are we moving those resources from—from understanding the threats globally or the risks that Russia may now pose? What will the cost of Brexit be if we are going to shift resources away from these important areas, particularly in Africa too?

The noble Lord’s point about budget has been raised on other matters here today. I will make sure that that information is given and given accurately. As to how personnel will be deployed, I have already made the point that there will be additional diplomats for embassies and increased roles and responsibilities for ambassadors. I have no doubt that, during the planning phase for our leaving the European Union, these things will be properly considered.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure as a former Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office to hear warm words about British diplomats, and I entirely agree with the need to deploy more British diplomats to EU capitals and to Brussels to carry out old-fashioned diplomacy, probably from the outside, to influence the EU. Perhaps what noble Lords are saying is that the Foreign Office needs an overall increase in its budget in order to be able to deploy more diplomats everywhere.

I thank the noble Lord for his comment. I can tell noble Lords with utter confidence that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget will rise from £1.2 billion in 2017-18 to £1.24 billion in 2019-20.

My Lords, presumably the secondees will be guaranteed reinstatement in the Foreign Office with all due emoluments and so on. For those directly employed in the EU, are there any precedents, as the noble Baroness seemed to indicate, for the EU to employ non-EU nationals within its external service?

Secondments provide a platform to demonstrate the UK’s expertise and to foster and develop positive UK-EU working relations. Any organisation, whether that is in government or a corporate company, would want to keep the expertise of people it will need. I cannot give the noble Lord that assurance here and now, but I will certainly go away and find out in order that I can respond to him.

Does the noble Baroness have any view on which scenario the Russians might be more frightened of: that of our being a country by itself pursing an independent foreign policy, which she referred to, or that of our being a member of the European External Action Service, where we can use all our diplomatic skills together with the established skills of the European Union to send a clear message to the Russian leadership?

Whether it is independently on our own or through the service we have been talking about, if we do the job properly then I am nobody to talk about the Russians being frightened but I hope we will keep them on their toes.