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Foreign Policy: UK-EU Dialogue

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what formal arrangements they have put in place to enable regular dialogue between the United Kingdom and the European Union about foreign policy matters.

My Lords, we have agreed with the European Union that we shall co-operate on current and emerging global issues of common interest, including co-ordinating positions and maintaining dialogue in multilateral organisations. We do not need overly institutionalised formal arrangements or a treaty framework within the EU to continue to co-operate closely with allies on foreign policy matters, including EU member states. We shall continue to discuss shared foreign policy challenges and threats and we look forward to a future relationship based on constructive co-operation between sovereign and independent allies.

The 2019 political declaration, which the Prime Minister said he supported, proposed a partnership between the UK and the EU on foreign policy, security and defence matters. Why then did the United Kingdom not take forward a formal arrangement despite EU willingness? Will the Government now do so? If not, how do they plan to protect and promote our interests in Hong Kong or on sanctions and other issues?

My Lords, on the practical terms that the noble Baroness mentioned, she will be aware that we are working closely with EU partners and other allies on issues of sanctions and indeed issues relating to Hong Kong. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement affirms our mutual commitment to democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights. As the noble Baroness will be aware, we are already working closely on many important issues—including issues of human rights, which are part of my portfolio—both bilaterally and through multilateral organisations.

My Lords, an unstable and unruly world needs strong alliances between countries seeking international stability and co-operation rather than competition. The Biden Administration will expect the UK not to behave in a way that weakens the EU. As all but six members of the EU are members of NATO, we have already integrated sufficient elements of our defence. Does the Minister agree that formal arrangements of co-operation between us on security and foreign policy are inevitable? He certainly did so in October 2019, when he strongly supported deep co-operation as set out in the revised UK-EU political declaration.

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know from his own experience as a Minister and as a Defence Secretary, and as he rightly articulated, NATO is the cornerstone of our relationship on the defence of Europe and the democratic values that we stand for. We remain committed to and at the centre of that NATO alliance, working with EU colleagues as well as other nations, most notably the United States. I reiterate our commitment to co-operation with our EU allies and others on important issues that currently confront the world.

My Lords, the Minister reiterates the Government’s commitment to co-operation with the European Union, but now that we no longer have a seat at the table, what mechanisms is the FCDO putting in place to ensure that we have regular contact with our bilateral partners in the EU 27 and individual member states?

My Lords, as I have already alluded to in my original Answer, formality of mechanisms is not a necessity for having close alliances, not least as demonstrated by our alliances with the United States, Canada and Australia in our meetings through the Five Eyes. We will continue to co-operate with our EU colleagues, as we have done on important statements on the JCPOA and on support for human rights issues around the world, including a recent statement in relation to Xinjiang.

My Lords, is it not the case that, for the most part, the whole idea of a common EU foreign policy was always more of an aspiration or a myth than a reality, particularly when one looks at the divisions over EU policy towards Kosovo, Syria, Iraq and Russia, not to mention the shambles of EU policy towards Ukraine? Nevertheless, is it not possible and in our interest—without getting bogged down in the rather impractical bureaucracy of the common security and foreign policy—for there to be some formal mechanism for discussing policy with those with whom, after all, we share certain fundamental values as well as the same geographical space?

My Lords, my noble friend speaks from insight and experience and I listen carefully to his suggestions. Let me assure him that we are already working closely with EU colleagues. As the new relationship evolves, I am sure that we will look at how we can further strengthen co-operation on the very issues that he has outlined for reasons of proximity. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, we want to be the best ally and the closest friend of the EU.

My Lords, of course co-operation is a good thing, but now that we are free, we can diverge for the better and hope to persuade the EU to take a better path; for example, in relation to China. Only yesterday, we heard of the atrocities taking place there from the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, but the EU has signed an investment agreement with China disregarding its crimes. Does the Minister agree that we must form an Anglo-American alliance and other alliances against Chinese atrocities and against buying Chinese-tainted goods and technology?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness’s point about creating alliances against the human rights abuses that we have seen in places such as Xinjiang and the continued suppression of democratic movements within Hong Kong, but it is not just about further strengthening our alliances with the US; it is about building international alliances and co-operation. Let me assure the noble Baroness that we are doing just that.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the JCPOA, and, of course, with the new US Administration, there is renewed optimism that it could be revived. The Government have been working recently with France and Germany in relation to Iran’s non-compliance. Could this E3 format be extended to other areas of mutual interest and concern?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a practical suggestion. I am sure that in time, as we see the strength of E3 co-operation and with the new Administration in the United States, there will be areas of further co-operation in this respect. We look forward to forging alliances with the E3 and with other European states, both bilaterally and within the context of the European Union, as well as with the new US Administration when it takes charge after President-elect Biden’s inauguration.

My Lords, now that we are no longer members of the European Union, what influence will we have, for example, in preventing the creation of defence structures which would duplicate NATO?

My Lords, we liaise closely not just on issues of defence but on other areas. The global human rights sanctions regime that we led on and that is now being taken forward by the European Union is a good practical example of that. We will continue to co-operate on defence and other matters with the EU to ensure non-duplication, as the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, can the Minister detail the nature of future structured or unstructured engagement with the EU on foreign policy around the issues of security and human rights?

My Lords, I have already alluded to that, but I assure the noble Baroness that we engage regularly. As a Minister responsible for human rights, I engage personally with the European Union human rights lead, Eamon Gilmore, and will continue to do so.

My Lords, just before Christmas, and after 16 years, the United Kingdom left the EU-led military mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Separately, there are reports that the FCDO expects to cut expenditure on its western Balkans programme from the current £80 million to under £50 million or possibly even £35 million. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that these reports of cuts are true and, if so, can I urge the Government to reconsider this step, which would have a damaging effect on our influence in the region and with our allies and risk being interpreted as yet further proof that the United Kingdom is turning its back on the EU and the western Balkans?

My Lords, we continue to engage on the Balkans. On the specifics of my noble friend’s question, I shall write to her.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has one of the finest and largest diplomatic forces in the world, something of which we should be proud. Does the Minister agree that Britain has always been seen as a gateway to the EU and that now is an opportunity, with a new US Administration, for Britain to partner with the United States and the European Union on many areas, including security and foreign policy?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord and I look forward to working with him on important priorities in terms both of trade and strengthening relationships, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Looking at the position of global Britain, it is worth reflecting that in under two years we have agreed 63 trade deals, which are valued at £885 billion. No country has done this; this is in less than two years. We still have trade deals being finalised with the United States and Australia to come. The picture for global Britain in terms of the facts on the ground is very positive. We look forward to strengthening our co-operation further with all partners across the world and working with your Lordships’ House, with the experience it brings, on strengthening global Britain and its place on the world stage.