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UK Diplomacy in Europe

Volume 635: debated on Thursday 1 February 2018

Foreign Affairs Committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Mr Tugendhat to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for this, my second opportunity to report back on the work that the House has charged the Foreign Affairs Committee to do. I am pleased that in this report the Committee has begun to tackle one of the most important questions facing us today: our bilateral relations following our departure from the European Union. The House will know that 1,000 years of history and, indeed, simple geography make clear the importance of these connections in our diplomatic outreach.

As part of the Government’s stated policy of pursuing a global agenda, the Committee believes that relations with European states are an important node in the network of our international future. In some areas, that may mean connections to and co-operation with the European Union, as the member states have decided to work together through that structure. On other occasions, it may mean direct bilateral conversations or, indeed, new structures. That poses a question for Her Majesty’s Government: how should we aim to shape this relationship to the benefit of the United Kingdom, our allies and others to achieve the deep and special partnership we hear spoken of so often?

The first answer was reinforced yesterday at a meeting I attended with Baltic partners. I was asked specifically whether the United Kingdom is still intending to invest in defence and play an international role as a nuclear power and a UN Security Council member state. The Committee members present were able to reassure our important allies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that, on the 100th anniversary of those countries’ foundation as modern states, our commitment to the defence of Europe and, indeed, to the defence of the Baltic states was undimmed. Nevertheless, their question reflected an uncertainty that the Committee calls on Her Majesty’s Government to do their utmost to dispel. To achieve that, the Committee feels that a vision for our European policy needs to be set out. As one of Europe’s leading foreign policy actors, whatever the precise contours of our future relationship with the European Union it will always be in the interests of the United Kingdom to co-operate with the European Union and its member states on foreign policy, defence and security.

Working together will help us to protect and project our shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and will underpin the international rules-based order. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary has told us that he intends to do that, but he has not yet decided what level of access to ask for as regards co-operation with the European Union on foreign, security and defence policy making, and he has not clarified the intent of the United Kingdom to work bilaterally with other member states. The Committee believes that this requires clarification soon, as Lord Bridges warned only the other day in the other place.

The Committee discussed many options and, I am glad to say, unanimously agreed that the ultimate goal should be to secure automatic and institutionalised collaboration that respects the decision-making autonomy of the United Kingdom, the member states and other European nations as they work together. This should include, as Lord Hague suggested, a status on the European Union’s Political and Security Committee that allows the United Kingdom to have a representative in meetings with speaking—if obviously not voting—rights, and a UK-EU strategic partnership to facilitate enhanced dialogue on foreign, defence and security policy. The importance of being, as Lord Hague and Lord Ricketts put it, “in the room” should not be undervalued in order to secure our interests in our nearest neighbourhood.

Now that we are leaving the European Union and surrendering our veto on closer defence integration among the other 27, we must also find a way to support European capability development and ensure that it complements the work of NATO and does not undermine it. To achieve this, the Committee calls on the Government to consider the possibility of participation in some EU defence integration measures, as the United Kingdom already does with the United States and other nations around the world, on the understanding that national sovereignty over force deployment is preserved and that the UK’s ability to co-operate with non-European Union states is unconstrained. The UK would, of course, participate only in programmes as an equal partner with other nations.

The Committee was given mixed messages about the FCO’s role in the Brexit process and beyond and, to clarify the position, the Committee calls on the FCO to publish a paper outlining the overall goals and the specific priorities of UK foreign policy in Europe after Brexit. This would allow the House to debate the priorities set out and to discuss the resources available to meet the objective.

Although we welcome the Minister for Europe’s success in securing additional resources, the Committee is concerned that they are being drawn from the wider network, possibly weakening the Government’s stated policy that we are to become a genuinely global Britain. That would be a grave mistake. Since Lord Hague, the Foreign Office has been opening missions around the world to extend the influence that the UK seeks in foreign affairs. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and now with a vital national interest in extending our diplomatic influence, it would be an error to reduce the resources available to achieve that. If leaving the EU meant that the UK were to reduce its international outreach, that would be a reversal of the aim stated by Ministers in recent months and would cause great concern to the whole Committee, and no doubt to the whole House.

The Committee remains concerned that the Foreign Office is not adequately resourced, and relations with Ireland are one example. The Republic of Ireland is the United Kingdom’s closest foreign partner. It is vital to the United Kingdom’s national interest that the relationship between Westminster and Dublin is as close as possible. Indeed, it is essential to the prosperity of both. That is why our first overseas visit as a Committee was to Dublin and to Cavan, on the border with Northern Ireland. We were hugely grateful for the warm welcome we received, particularly from my honourable friend the Member for Cavan-Monaghan and the Chair of our sister Committee in the Oireachtas, Brendan Smith. We saw first-hand the complications at the border, the importance of the bilateral relationship and the importance of strengthening it throughout this Parliament. We therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to preserving the progress that has been made in UK-Ireland relations in recent years, and regret that recent tensions appear to endanger the hard-won positive momentum.

We welcome the progress made thus far in negotiations, but also recognise that much more needs to be done. That is why the Committee calls on the Foreign Office to increase its diplomatic presence in Ireland and to produce an analysis of the UK-Ireland bilateral relationship, containing recommendations to improve it and options to revitalise existing, or indeed create new, bilateral institutions.

The opportunity for the United Kingdom is in an internationally engaged, networked world. We are uniquely placed to achieve this due to history, alliances and geography, but in order to do so we need both investment and energy, and the Foreign Office, most of all, must set out its vision, its strategy for achieving that, and the resources required to make it possible. The Committee remains concerned by the silence on many areas and the confusion in others.

I obviously declare an interest as a member of the Committee that produced this unanimous report. If we leave the European Union, we inevitably lose influence. Does my friend the Chairman of the Committee believe that the Government have confronted the issue sufficiently and made proposals to remedy and ameliorate the loss of influence that will inevitably arise within Europe and European institutions?

The hon. Gentleman is more than aware of the debates we have had behind closed doors on this. I will start by saying that when we leave the European Union the nature of Britain’s influence will change, and does not need to diminish as long as Britain takes the opportunity to invest properly in global power. That is why the Committee was so concerned about the possibility that we are stripping off resources from parts of the world such as Asia and South America to reinforce where we will no longer be in the room in Brussels among the EU27. As my dear and honourable Friend knows very well, that is why we need more resources for the Foreign Office in order to make this possible. We need extra commitment, extra drive and extra energy and, to bind it together, we need the vision that, sadly, have not yet seen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on this very important report. Does he not agree that, given that we are leaving the European Union, we should redouble our diplomatic, economic and educational links with countries such as Serbia, Poland, Hungary and other countries in eastern Europe that are great friends of the United Kingdom, and that, given the significant number of Polish residents here, we should teach children the positive contribution that Polish people have made to Britain and the world?

I absolutely welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Britain’s relationship with eastern Europe, particularly the Visegrad Four, was summed up in my conversation with our Baltic partners only yesterday. Britain’s role in assisting at the liberation of those countries from communism and in defending them at other points in history is one that many of them look at with fondness and affection. We should absolutely recognise and invest in that, and I pay huge tribute to our missions and embassies in those countries and the efforts they are making with the resources they have available. All I would add is: imagine what they could do with more resources. Imagine how many more people they could help to persuade of the benefits of thinking along those lines.

I congratulate the Committee on the report. Disrupting modern slavery supply chains across Europe requires high-quality diplomatic skill on our part. What assessment has the Foreign Affairs Committee made of our future diplomatic capacity in this area to disrupt this blight?

The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question, and this is one area where we need to consider not just bilateral relations but relations with the European Union as an organisation. We must recognise that if that is how 27 member states choose to work, our option for working with them is through the organisation that they choose. That is simply a fact. Seeing how we can plug into that organisation is essential, which is why we call on the Foreign Office to consider very hard the bilateral nature of that relationship, and perhaps to look at it in a different way. When we look at the mission in Washington, for example, and the way that the British embassy there plugs across an entire network, that may be a model for how we look into the European Union. Some of us—I speak personally here, not for the Committee—are attracted by the idea of having a Minister resident in Europe, not only to promote Britain’s interests, but to make sure that our European partners and friends see the importance that we place on that relationship.

My hon. and gallant Friend reminds me that, when I was first elected, half the Whips Office were colonels.

The Committee has done well. There is a reference to the British-Irish Council and to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I hope that the Government will be asked by this House and by the Committee to make sure that our membership of the Council of Europe, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe get more attention than perhaps they have had in the past, and that there are regular meetings between their members and Government, and debates in this House.

The question for us is how we can all contribute and gain, because that is the best way to maintain Britain’s interests as the status of our relationship with the European Union changes. As a last point, may I say that, as normal, most of these reports have three blank pages? It might be helpful for those who do not want to read the whole report to have a glossary somewhere, so that the alphabet soup can be understood by those to whom some of these things are strange.

Perhaps I can pick up on the last point first. I have just smiled at my excellent Committee Clerk, who was so essential to producing this report, and I am sure that she has noted that.

On the other bodies that my hon. Friend mentioned, I am absolutely in agreement with him that the investment that we must make now in different forms of bilateralism and different forms of multinationalism is absolutely essential to achieving the aims of the United Kingdom. This island is not moving anywhere. We are still going to remain 20 miles or so off the coast of France, and we are still going to have our closest relationships, in many ways, with European nations. How we engage in them is essential, and that will require resourcing and time.

Unquestionably, leaving the European Union means that we must redouble our efforts with our European partners, but surely that cannot come at the expense of manpower or money being siphoned away from other parts of the world. Does the Chair of the Select Committee share my concerns that the Foreign Office does not have enough resources to put the investment that we will need into Europe?

I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concerns. He will be aware that the recent sale of an embassy in Thailand, which admittedly raised an awful lot of money to address some of the holes in the capital spending of the Foreign Office, will inherently have diminished our presence in some way. These symbolic buildings, these iconic places, are essential to getting people through the door—and, of course, what is the purpose of a diplomatic mission but to get people in to talk to us? Although these palaces may look glorious, and none more so than our embassy in Paris, the work that our ambassador, the right hon. Lord Llewellyn, is putting into that building—not into the bricks and mortar, but into it as a living body, as an embodiment of Britain in Paris—is essential to ensuring that our network is increased, that our reach is augmented, and indeed that our economy is promoted. That is only possible when we resource it correctly, which is why I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we do need to increase the resources available for the Foreign Office in order to promote the United Kingdom and to get better return for this country on the investment that we are making.

On page 26, my hon. Friend’s Committee looks at the issue of NATO and the new EU defence pillar. He encourages participation in some EU defence integration measures. On behalf of my constituents in Kettering, may I caution his Committee against that as a slippery slope, because NATO is the main pillar of western defence and will always remain as such? The EU is in great danger of undermining that, and we should not go down that slippery slope, because it would not be in our national interest.

I thank my hon. Friend, whose points on this area have been important and well made over many years, and I welcome his intervention now. This report was passed unanimously, despite such points, because of the evidence that we heard. The reality is that non-NATO EU states—countries like Sweden—are looking to integrate more closely now that we have gone with other European nations on defence. We have a choice. If we wish to work with northern allies like Sweden in defence of the high north and in projecting Britain’s influence in the Arctic, we need to think, what is the most appropriate organisation, and what is the most appropriate structure through which to operate? I am entirely in agreement with him that the EU would not be the best structure and that NATO is, but the problem is that we have lost our veto in the European Union, the other 27 are pursuing that, and we therefore have a choice either to work with them at some level or not to be part of it at all. Given Scotland’s position and given our position as a nation with interests in the high north, I would urge us to work with others who have interests there and, on occasion and cautiously and carefully, to work with some EU defence structures.

I commend the hon. Gentleman and the members of his Committee for a sobering but very, very useful report. Given the number of quite serious concerns that it raises—for example, the fact that it appears that three different witnesses for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave three different understandings as to what their role in the Brexit process was—can he advise the House on what arrangements the Committee intends to make to ensure that Foreign Office Ministers are held to account for the recommendations? In particular, would it be appropriate to ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House at an early date, so that the House can scrutinise in more detail some of the concerns that the report has raised?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. One thing that we are finding, as the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is in his place today will know, is that at times there is a little resistance in the Foreign Office to answering some questions. Indeed, I had to write to the Foreign Secretary about it yesterday. The Minister is one of the most open and helpful people in his Department, so there is absolutely no criticism either of him or his area of responsibility, but there are other areas in which we are finding it hard to get answers.

For example, we have asked how the Foreign Office envisions the meaning of global Britain. So far, it has declined to answer. I find it somewhat unusual that a Government Department should refuse or decline to answer questions from the assembled people in this Parliament; I find that an unusual position to take. Therefore, we are asking the Foreign Office to think again. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to hold the various Ministers to account. The Foreign Secretary will be answering Foreign Office questions here in this House, and we have asked all Ministers to appear twice a year before the Committee, because we feel that six months is a reasonable time lag between visits. The hon. Gentleman is well within his rights to call for a more urgent response if there is something that he sees as more urgently requiring it.

I commend the Chairman and the members of the Committee for producing this excellent report. Will he confirm that, in relation to intelligence and security, a permanent official should be appointed to ensure that the relationship that we have with Europe at the moment continues?

Madam Deputy Speaker, if you will forgive me wearing another hat as the member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, I will tell the hon. Gentleman that I was privileged to hear from two of our former chiefs of intelligence and two other senior diplomatic officials recently about the sharing of intelligence and the importance placed on it by all nations in the European continent. I am not concerned about it not continuing. The one concern is that we must have influence over data sharing and data holding regulations, because European decisions on that could well affect United Kingdom companies and interests.

It is my role simply to say thank you to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his presentation and to thank colleagues for their contributions. I have obviously listened very carefully to all the exchanges and will draw them to the attention of both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe. There will be a formal Foreign Office response in due course, but it is also an opportunity to thank the Committee for its work. I certainly look forward to appearing before it again in the future. Finally, happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker.