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Brexit: Engagement with EU on Foreign Affairs

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019


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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have made to coordinate joint engagement on foreign affairs with European Union member states if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

My Lords, on leaving the European Union the UK will continue to work closely with European partners in our shared interest or to tackle common threats. The United Kingdom is strengthening bilateral relationships in Europe and globally, as well as our multilateral and small-group diplomacy. We are seeking a comprehensive and balanced security relationship with the European Union that will respect the UK’s sovereignty and the EU’s decision-making autonomy.

Today, we were due to leave the EU, regardless of consequence, so perhaps we will have a little more time to think through the implications of this generational decision. We have maximised our position on foreign affairs through the EU. What chance is there of retaining that influence if we are not at the pre-meetings and the EU meetings, and we are not a member of the EU caucus at gatherings of multilateral organisations—for example, those that address climate change? Does the Minister really think that paying for a few hundred more civil servants across the EU and in the UK will close that gap?

On the final point, I totally disagree with the noble Baroness. It is not just a few civil servants; it is 1,000, and that is a substantial uplift. If you are going to be on the global stage, you need more diplomats, and we have brought about just that, including in the European Union. On losing influence, I remind her that we are a P5 member of the UN and a member of the G7, the G20, NATO and the OSCE. Far from receding, that provides an opportunity after we leave the European Union to continue our relationship with our European partners, to strengthen our global ambitions and aspirations, and to truly be a global Britain on the world stage.

My Lords, would “co-operate” not be a better word than “co-ordinate”? After all, Britain has vast and growing interests in a rising Asia, in the Africas and in America—areas well beyond the immediate reach or interest of our neighbouring European powers. What would be the point of latching ourselves exclusively to our neighbours’ foreign policy—a committee of 27 other countries—when we have a desperate need to develop a much more effective policy in relation to Asia and Africa, where all the growth will be over the next 10 years?

I agree with my noble friend, who speaks on these matters with great insight. Of course, he is a great advocate, as am I and other noble Lords, of the growing strength of our Commonwealth network of 53 nations. I agree with him that this is about co-operation. A specific example of co-operation with our European Union partners and European colleagues after we leave the European Union will be the E3 relationship. As Minister for the UN, I can say that we have been strengthening the European voice in co-ordinated activity at the UN Security Council, acting together co-operatively, and that is a demonstration of how we will continue to work with European partners after we leave the EU. However, I agree with my noble friend that there is a huge opportunity to work with partners elsewhere.

My Lords, can the Minister perhaps explain to the House what loss of sovereignty exists in our membership of the European Union in the parts that deal with common foreign and security policy, given that all decisions are taken by unanimity? Is that not a bit of a red herring? Does he not agree that any relationship that we negotiate for security and foreign policy co-operation really would have to be load-bearing if it is to be of any use at all and not just leave us tagging along?

I always listen carefully to the noble Lord’s contributions but, on this occasion, I disagree with him. He will know from his own insights and experience that, on issues of security co-operation, the United Kingdom will continue to work with our European partners through our continued and leading membership of organisations such as the OSCE, NATO and, indeed, the UN, which will provide that security, strength and partnership.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the Franco-British Council. The Minister has placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of bilateral relationships following—if I may say so—the Prime Minister’s flawed hard Brexit. Can he give the House a commitment to greatly improve the support given to these bilateral organisations, including financial support? At present, it is pitiful.

On the noble Baroness’s point about a hard Brexit, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has worked to achieve a deal with our European partners, often against great criticism and against those who said that it could not be done. It is regrettable that the House of Commons did not pass that agreement. However, we are where we are, the agreement is on the table and we hope—as the Conservative Government that will emerge after the election—that we will continue to pursue that agreement with our European partners. This is about not a hard Brexit but a pragmatic relationship with our European partners. The noble Baroness makes a valuable point about bilateral relationships. We will continue to strengthen such relationships with our European partners, and I will certainly look at her proposal to strengthen our funding in that respect.

My Lords, bilateral relationships are only one part of the picture, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans, said in a recent article on security issues and our current policy. The noble Lord, who is of course a former director-general of the security services, said that,

“the whole approach the UK has taken is one of integration between law enforcement and the national security agencies. The risk, in my view, with Brexit is that there will be differential impact on the one hand on the intelligence relationships, and on the other the law enforcement agencies”.

What is the Minister’s response to that?

The noble Lord will have looked at the withdrawal agreement, which provides for continuing our security and defence relationship through the transition period; that relationship will be a primary focus after we leave the European Union. Subsequently, as we negotiate the detail of the political agreement, we will work to take note of the very points that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, raised in his article. However, given the strength of our role on the world stage—particularly through defence organisations such as NATO and security organisations such as OSCE, of which we will continue to be not just members but leading members—I am confident that many of the concerns that noble Lords are rightly raising will be addressed.