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Brexit: Bilateral Relations with European Union Member States

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what initiatives the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has put in place to strengthen bilateral relations with individual European Union member states after Brexit.

My Lords, we remain strongly committed to our bilateral relations with EU partners. We have an extensive and well-established diplomatic network throughout the European Union, which is the foundation for our efforts to strengthen bilateral relations. Since June 2016, we have strengthened this network and invested substantially in the relationships we need in order to develop our interests in Europe after Brexit. This is complementary to our efforts to establish a strong relationship with the EU institutions.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Clearly diplomatic relations are important, but over the last 46 years the UK has built up a very intense set of relationships through membership of the European institutions. Ministers, parliamentarians and officials have regular contact with their opposite numbers from the other EU member states. When we leave the EU institutions, we will lose those informal relationships as well. Is a diplomatic strengthening of relations sufficient or do the Government also envisage thickening relations through party mechanisms and other means? If not, we are going to be not just outside the room formally but we will lose mechanisms for influencing our like-minded partners such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

My Lords, it is important and I agree with the noble Baroness that relationships matter. Of course, not just in the context of the EU but in any relationship, the ability to pick up the phone and talk to a counterpart in any country is essential to extending our strength of diplomacy. In the context of the European Union, I shall give three examples. The noble Baroness mentioned Germany: we announced a UK-Germany strategic dialogue in April 2018, which will be at Foreign Minister level. We have also agreed a joint compact on global responsibility and a joint vision statement on defence, in October 2018, between the MoD and the German defence department. We also had a successful UK-French summit in January 2018, a successful UK-Poland intergovernmental consultation in December 2018 and let us not forget that, above other things, we have also had two recent state visits, one from the Netherlands and one from Spain. Our diplomatic efforts and our efforts at extending through other connections, including party mechanisms, all make us well placed to continue to strengthen our work together.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that to limit the damage, if Brexit were to take place, we need to identify, examine, exploit and strengthen all existing relationships? That means not just diplomatically through our embassies and consulates, but that the parliamentary dimension should be examined. That includes the international parliamentary institutions like the Council of Europe and the all-party groups in this Parliament, which should be allowed to strengthen their relationships with their opposite numbers in the European Union.

I agree with the noble Lord about the Council of Europe, which remains an important body that we will continue to be part of. As Minister for the United Nations, I can say that we engage at the Security Council in that context. I recently attended a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Brussels called by the Belgian Foreign Minister which included Poland, Germany, ourselves and EU Commissioner Federica Mogherini. We talked about how we as five countries can work collectively within the context of the Security Council on European issues. Indeed, recent examples such as ensuring that the Iranian nuclear deal stays on the table show the strength of European unity. That goes beyond just working through what we have done so far with the European Union as a body.

My Lords, have my noble friend and his colleagues in the Foreign Office noticed the views of Mrs Merkel’s likely successor as Chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has urged EU leaders to put aside their endless plans for more integration and develop stronger practical network links throughout Europe? Is that not precisely the sort of pattern that we, either in Brexit or after Brexit, would be far better placed to pursue and very much in line with a longer-term view of how Europe should develop?

My noble friend speaks from experience in this regard and is absolutely right. As I said in my Answer to the Question, the strength of relationships is important. We welcome the statements from Germany and indeed this week the German Foreign Minister, who I have dealt with extensively on initiatives we are taking at the UN in areas such as preventing sexual violence, has spoken very strongly about the importance of the bilateral relationship between our two countries and the need to strengthen that further.

My Lords, I understand that one key impact on our team in Brussels is that the expense accounts of our diplomats have been increased in order that they can take people out to lunch instead of meeting them inside the room. Aside from that, the key issue here is that of FCO resources being diverted to the necessary task of building up bilateral relationships. What impact is that having on our ability to act, particularly as regards hotspots in the world such as the Russian desk? Are we taking resources away from these very important areas to devote work to bilateral relationships in Europe?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to strengthen our relationships across the piece. He will recall that we are expanding our diplomatic missions in many parts of the world. I am the Minister for the Caribbean, and later this year we will announce the opening of missions and diplomatic posts there. Of course as we leave the European Union it is important that we strengthen our network of diplomats in Europe. That is why every single one of the 27 ambassadors is now at senior management level. We have also announced a broad and extensive uplift in the form of new posts within our diplomatic missions across the EU—an expansion of 550. That continues to work well. On taking people out to lunch and working outside the room, I would be delighted to take the noble Lord out to lunch.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the principal finding made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Germany after its visit to the Bundestag two years ago was that we needed to significantly increase the exchange of young people from this country with those of Germany and other countries? Does he, as I do, take pride in and warmly applaud the move by the Secretary of State for Education to set aside money for every schoolchild to promote school exchanges with nations abroad?

The short answer is absolutely, and I pay tribute to the noble Earl’s work with young people. It is not just the European Union that is important in this context; I put on record the excellent work of the British Council in strengthening our educational links, and I am sure that many noble Lords agree. That should continue, not just with EU countries but beyond the EU—within the Commonwealth and across the world as a whole.