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Diplomatic Influence Post Brexit

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the change in the United Kingdom’s diplomatic influence since it ceased to be a participant in the political cooperation meetings of the European Union.

My Lords, we continue to work closely with all our allies, including the EU and European states, to build a network of liberty and tackle shared foreign policy challenges and threats. We do not need to attend formal EU meetings in order to do so effectively. Our recent achievements, including our presidencies of the G7 and COP 26, have shown that we retain significant diplomatic influence, supported by the best diplomats in the world.

I thank the Minister for his reply, in which he did not actually deal with the Question: whether we have lost diplomatic influence since we ceased to be a participant in the political co-operation meetings of the European Union. At lunchtime today, the members are meeting in Paris to talk about migration. This evening, the EU Defence Ministers are meeting in Brest. We will be missing from both those meetings. Are we not losing influence?

My Lords, I think the opposite is the case, as we have shown over the last couple of years. The UK has exerted extraordinary influence around the world through various fora. At the G7, which we hosted, the UK led the way in underlining members’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, for example. Last year, the Prime Minister and President Biden signed a new UK-US Atlantic Charter. We established the AUKUS defence partnership and agreed new free trade agreements with both Australia and New Zealand. There are many examples from last year alone where the UK performed globally in a way that I think is almost unprecedented.

My Lords, as a corollary to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, can I ask the Minister whether there has been a diminution in co-operation or in the sharing of criminal intelligence following the exclusion of British police forces from the various policing institutions in the European Union?

My Lords, we have shown that we do not need a separate institutional treaty to work effectively with the EU on foreign policy and security, whether that is co-ordinating on Belarus sanctions or responding jointly to Russian aggression, Iran or anything else. We maintain good diplomatic relations with the European states, which generally share our foreign policy goals on all the big issues of the day.

In the policy areas the Minister has outlined, we were able to do that while we were a member of the European Union. When I watched the German election night coverage live, there was a home truth for me when I saw Anthony Gardner, former US ambassador to the EU, say that the election was of key importance to the US. He said that Germany is now the leader of the 27, since the UK has left. We have heard repeatedly that we have left the EU but not Europe, so can the Minister say what European policy areas we are currently leading?

My Lords, Germany is an essential ally and one of our most important international partners. The new German coalition Government described the UK as one of Germany’s closest partners just a few days ago. Wherever it is in our common interests, the UK works extremely closely with the European Union, as noble Lords would expect, on security, counterterror and a whole range of different issues. The noble Lord asks where in particular we have led in recent months or years. The most obvious area relates to climate change, where we have galvanised the European Union into a position that greatly exceeds the position it held only 12 months ago.

Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what our effective political influence actually was when we attended these political co-operation meetings as a member of the EU? For instance, what was said when we suggested that Nord Stream 2 was not a good idea?

The noble Lord makes a really important point. We have always been concerned that Nord Stream 2—it is an obvious thing to say—risks entrenching European energy dependence on Russia and undermining Ukraine’s security. The noble Lord raises a broader point, and in the areas where I work in government, particularly in the department for the environment, it is not only the case that we have not lost a seat at the table by leaving the European Union; we have gained a seat at the table. In forums such as CITES, the UK is able to influence votes and actual outcomes in a way that we were never able to before, because we had to pool our voice with a whole bunch of other countries that did not always agree with us.

My Lords, there is a risk here of the Minister sounding complacent. This matters. The prosperity and security of the United Kingdom depend on us having significant diplomatic influence. Surely we must be seen to stick to our agreements. With that in mind, I encourage Ministers to resolve outstanding issues with the EU regarding the Northern Ireland protocol as a matter of urgency. Does the Minister agree that Russia’s hostile activity demonstrates our need to facilitate close security partnerships with the EU and our European partners as well as NATO?

I certainly do not intend to sound complacent. I simply push back on the idea that the UK has lost influence. All the evidence over the last two years shows that we have extraordinary influence around the world, disproportionate to the size of our country and even to the size of our economy—notwithstanding that we are the fifth biggest economy in the world. However, the noble Baroness is right: post-Brexit relations with the EU remain heavily influenced by the resolution of outstanding exit priorities, principally the Northern Ireland protocol, where talks need to proceed with renewed urgency this month. I have every hope that we will see success at the end of those talks.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has recently appointed a special envoy to the western Balkans. This is a welcome appointment, but what processes and mechanisms will be available to that envoy for co-ordinating with the EU, which has such an important presence on the ground in the western Balkans?

As I said, my Lords, we retain good diplomatic relations with European states and share foreign policy goals with them, particularly on issues around Russia, Iran and China and indeed on the issue that the noble and gallant Lord raises. The trade and co-operation agreement provides for future co-operation on emerging security challenges—everything from counterterror to cyber- crime. It also provides for an agreement on security of information that will allow the UK and the EU to exchange classified information on a voluntary basis.

I remind the Minister that Lord Carrington and Geoffrey Howe, two of the main architects of the institutions of European foreign policy co-operation, said on many occasions that this was one of the most valuable aspects of our membership of the European Union; that should not be forgotten. It was agreed in the Foreign Office 20 years ago that we could cut our staff in bilateral embassies across Europe because we did so much of the business in Brussels. Has the Foreign Office now accepted that we need to increase substantially our staff in bilateral embassies across Europe, even as the overall diminution in the size of the Diplomatic Service is still under way? We need to increase those bilateral staff if we are to maintain our contacts.

In the last decade our diplomatic network has expanded by over 10%, making it the fourth largest global network of embassies and high commissions after China, the US and France. We now oversee one of the world’s largest diplomatic networks, with 282 posts covering 179 countries and territories, including 161 embassies or high commissions. In the EU, the Foreign Office has carried out a comprehensive review of resources across Europe to ensure that we have the right staff focused on the right priorities. However, the noble Lord makes an important point that is fully accepted by the Foreign Office.

My noble friend Lord Balfe mentioned that we were absent from the EU defence committee that met the other day. How can EU defence come to anything if it does not have serious contributions from the French and the Germans? When we last looked at German defence capability it was ill equipped and ill trained, and this Government seem to be more pacifist than the one they replaced.

My Lords, I do not know whether my noble friend is referring to this Government or the French Government. Our defence capabilities have been consistently growing over the last few years, as noble Lords will know. As I have said, there is no shortage of dialogue between ourselves, Germany, France and other European powers when it comes to issues of security that are in our common interest.

My Lords, the Government seem to believe that the less engagement we have with our European friends, the more influence we have. Surely that is not the case. Now that we have left the European Union, do we not need to find new ways of engaging with our partners in order to look after Britain’s interests?

My Lords, that is not the Government’s view at all. We engage on a very regular basis with our friends and allies across the European Union. It is also worth mentioning the obvious point of NATO. Continental European security is directly linked to UK security. We work closely through NATO, the Joint Expeditionary Force, and bilaterally on counterterror, serious organised crime and illegal migration—a particularly live issue today. As one of only two European nations with truly global military reach, Europe needs our defence and security capability.

My Lords, if the United Kingdom’s diplomatic influence is as high as the Minister is claiming, why has the UK still not joined the Horizon Europe programme? Our absence from it is damaging to British science.

My Lords, I would love to have time to give lots of examples of where we have exerted disproportionate influence over the last year or two. On the specific issue that the noble Viscount raises, we are keen to formalise our association with programmes such as Horizon; we regard that as a win-win for all, so we are disappointed there have been delays from the European Union and I hope we will overcome them.