In partnership with Open Europe and the Centre for European Reform, Business for New Europe brought together a distinguished panel of speakers to discuss the role of Brussels in British foreign policy. The event was chaired by David Rennie, The Economist, and the speakers included Lord Hurd of Westwell, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (1989-1995), Alexandr Vondra, Czech Minister of Defence, Gunilla Carlsson, Swedish Minister for Development Cooperation and the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Lord Hurd started the discussion noting that whilst member states continue to represent themselves as individuals in foreign policy negotiations there are, at the same time, strong cases of collective EU action, which is often under-reported. For example, Palestine is an example of where the EU has taken a specific stand and it is important to remember, Hurd emphasized, that these actions are exercised by Lady Ashton on the UK’s behalf.
There is a clear relationship between Brussels and Britain in the foreign policy domain; however, it is not a case of one against the other argued Hurd. He said that counties act on their own and countries act collectively at the EU level; in short, this dynamic in European foreign policy relations should not necessarily be viewed as a negative conflict.
Looking forward, Hurd hopes that unanimity is the key to dealing with any problems of EU-level foreign policy. Hurd suggests that it is useful to look back at the referendum and the advantages noted by Thatcher – most of all, it would undoubtedly help Britain speak with one voice along with Europe on global issues.
However, he recognized this is not particularly possible because – as Libya demonstrated this year – the EU faces the problem of a lack of unanimity. Indeed, the US may increasingly think that they can leave problems in the hands of the Europeans but the reality is that this poses a challenge which the EU and the UK are not particularly prepared for. The majority of Europe’s military operations are in the hands of Britain and France, Hurd argued that this is because both countries have a greater likelihood of intervention in comparison to their other EU counterparts. Plus, Europe has been too successful in demilitarizing Germany.
Russia is a key area that Hurd advocated joint EU activity, he said this was highly desirable. The UK should be cautious here because the reliance on Russian oil and gas is a concern. Hurd believes a non-EU level approach to Russia could be detrimental to the EU/Russia relationship and could further exaggerate the already-present worries about dependence. Despite clear national divergences on the issue – namely Germany – it is crucial he argued that EU member states operate together, with individual sectors working more closely and minor difference put aside; there are big possibilities here if the UK is willing to play its part collectively. Furthermore, Germany should not be encouraged to continue on an inward-looking path.
On a whole, Hurd concluded that there are many different disputes on foreign policy issues and he knows that progress is slow mainly because of the need for unanimity. However, he closed by saying that the potential of Europe acting together should not be underestimated – the potential of Europe acting together is great and has not yet been fully realised.
Gunilla Carlsson considered what is currently at stake in European-level foreign policy and argued that there is a need for Britain to be a positive force. She noted that whilst the UK and Sweden are both outside the eurozone, they remain dependent on stability, particularly because of significant trade links with eurozone countries. Indeed, Carlsson recognized that this demonstrates the self-interest of member states like the UK and Sweden but nevertheless its importance cannot be undermined. The EU really needs to stand united in order to be able to take on huge challenges; the peaceful stability of Europe is a strong example of this.
There is a need for greater cooperation because otherwise there is a clear risk of a weakened Europe developing, particularly as new global powers continue to emerge. Carlsson emphasized this by noting that China is a good example of an emerging international relation player but, on the other hand, the US – being in a bad shape currently – is another example a shifting military structure because their austerity measures have placed significant pressure on their arms sector.
There is no doubt, stated Carlsson, that there is an expectation that Europe will stand up for human rights and democracy, particularly in the Arab Spring. The worst thing that could happen in foreign policy is for a clear division amongst EU member states to emerge because for both the EU27 and individual member states, a successful EU foreign policy is something that will only work united.
Carlsson closed by emphasizing what she viewed as a key foreign policy issue for Europe – Turkish accession. It is not too late, she argued, for Turkey to join the EU and it must not be forgotten that enlargement is one of the greatest assets of the EU. Carlsson stated that there was a definite importance of Turkey in the UK – and indeed the EU – which must be more effectively recognized.
Britain has really served the EU in a good way she said and Sweden needs Britain to be a positive force in Europe, particularly taking a core role in the decision-making process on Turkey. Sweden takes a key interest in working more closely together with Turkey and has confidence in what the EU should continue to be about.
David Lidington outlined three key points about the relationship between Brussels and Britain on foreign policy. Firstly, Lidington sees European policy not as a substitute for UK foreign policy but as a tool to compliment and give further leverage; this is the general thinking behind the UK’s foreign policy he argued. In an EU context, Lidington said he recognized that statement is far easier for a British government to say than a smaller – perhaps newer – EU member state. He added that unlike other policy domains in the EU, foreign policy is strictly a matter where the unanimity rule still applies and this is why there are not common positions on issues such as Turkey and Russia.
Secondly, when the EU seeks to work together and have greater leverage as the EU27, rather than individually, it needs to have clear and limited priorities. The EEAS should not try and do everything but focus on specific programmes that it can do best and at full capacity, argued Lidington. Obama does have visible impatience with a US/EU summit and he put forward what he views as three collective priorities for EU member states in the foreign policy.
1. Working collectively to open up the Chinese market and reduce bureaucratic restrictions; more broadly, Lidington believes that securing global partners for domestic businesses is a shared goal for EU member states like France and Germany, and working together to do this would produce the greatest results.
2. Continue with the success of the European Neighbourhood Policy to build a new approach to European policy with greater leverage capabilities than before.
3. The EU should focus on what it is particularly good at – conflict resolution and conflict prevention. Lidington stated that Lady Ashton has done a really good job on Iran sanctions and emphasized that this was a particular achievement because neither Washington nor Tehran thought Europe was capable of delivering here.
Finally, Lidington concluded by looking at how you achieve the above institutionally. He argued that the UK and fellow EU member states must seek to influence the EEAS and ensure that their focus remains on collective responsibilities. Also, he stated that there is a collective obligation for EU foreign affairs ministers to work together more effectively and more frequently than they have in the past; Lidington said that he has already begun to observe the growth and habit of routine in consultations between foreign affairs ministers and this has made it possible to identify a common position more swiftly.
Alexandr Vondra agreed with Lidington’s view that strong alliances can be achieved and Carlsson’s view on the value of Turkish accession. On Turkey, Vondra elaborated that the reality of Turkish accession is that France and Germany will never allow Turkey in because firstly, it is larger than they are and the EU has never actually agreed to accession for a country of this composition. Also, countries seriously view Turkish accession as a competition issue and always will. The problem now is that Turkey is no longer oblivious to this.
Moving forward in terms of EU foreign policy, Vondra argued that the first priority is strategic and the second is operational.
Strategically, there are several important relationships, like those with US, Russia, Turkey and China. With US, for example, the EU is not in any better shape than it was ten years ago and with Russia, there was a promise that a bigger EU meant they would be able to defend interests better. In terms of the latter, the EU is now in a situation where it is facing a greater dependence on Russia than before and Germany is just likely to further exacerbate these concerns.
Operationally, the question is of ownership of the common interest and the difficulty is that the EU has created a dilemma amongst member states. Considering his own country, Vondra noted that if you are running a small diplomatic service you have a dilemma because you have a minimal number of skilled people and whilst you do not what to lose them to Brussels you cannot match the salary levels.
Vondra noted that the question of ownership applied throughout the foreign policy structures of the EU and specifically noted the EEAS here. As a result of a lack of ownership, it is not Brussels who runs the show but a small group of diplomats and these few are likely from the North; twenty years ago there was an east/west divide and today, the EU has a significant north/south divide. However, Vondra argued that there have still been success stories coming out of Europe, such as Iran.