As regular readers of this blog will know, my single biggest worry about the Conservative party taking office in the UK was the prospect of arch-eurosceptic William Hague taking over the Foreign Office (the man who, as leader of the party back in 2001, ran a last-ditch general election campaign on the slogan “7 days to save the pound”).
Hague has repeatedly rattled his sabre in the direction of the EU, making numerous references to “repatriating” powers from “Brussels”, and often seeming to believe numerous Europhobic myths about the way the EU operates.
After 13 years of a supposedly pro-EU government which repeatedly refused to constructively engage with our continental partners, my fear has been that the incoming Conservative government (even with the tempering effect of their more pro-EU Liberal Democrat partners, led by former Commission official and ex-MEP Nick Clegg) would pull the UK even further from Europe’s heart. This, I am certain, would be disastrous – both for Britain and for the EU itself, but mostly for Britain.
Today, Hague is giving his first major speech since becoming Foreign Secretary. So let’s have a quick look at some of the highlights – especially in relation to Britain’s future policy towards the EU. It must be said, there were a few pleasant surprises…
First, it’s interesting to see that despite acknowledging the world’s continued shift to multilateralism, Hague emphasises bilateral relations – with the United States highlighted as “our most important relationship”. Hague has long been an Atlanticist – but with Obama in the White House (especially with his recent Brit-bashing over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), the period of insanely close UK-US ties we saw during the Clinton and Bush administrations seems to be stuttering to an end. Has Hague come to the party too late to keep the (always mythical) “Special Relationship” alive? (By this stage in the speech, about a quarter of the way through, Europe or the EU has yet to be mentioned at all):
“although the world has become more multilateral… it has also become more bilateral. Relations between individual countries matter, starting with our unbreakable alliance with the United States which is our most important relationship and will remain so. Our shared history, value and interests, our tightly linked economies and strong habits of working together at all levels will ensure that the US will remain our biggest single level for achieving our international goals.”
Later in the same paragraph, note Hague’s emphasis on the fluidity of multilateral / regional groupings and the insistence on the continued importance of individual states:
“Regional groups are certainly strengthening across the world, but these groups are not rigid or immutable. Nor have they diminished the role of individual states as some predicted. Today, influence increasingly lies with networks of states with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance and connections, including the informal, which act as vital channels of influence and decision-making and require new forms of engagement from Britain.”
But despite this somewhat anachronistic insistence on the role of the state, Hague certainly does seem to genuinely get that the old ways of international diplomacy are over:
“Relations between states are now no longer monopolised by Foreign Secretaries or Prime Ministers. There is now a mass of connections between individuals, civil society, businesses, pressure groups and charitable organisations which are also part of the relations between nations and which are being rapidly accelerated by the internet…
“So if the increasingly multipolar world already means that we have more governments to influence and that we must become more active, the ever accelerating development of human networks means that we have to use many more channels to do so, seeking to carry our argument in courts of public opinion around the world as well as around international negotiating tables.”
All good stuff – but what are these “many more channels”?
“In this networked world the UK not only needs to be an active and influential member of multilateral bodies but we also need to ensure that our diplomacy is sufficiently agile, innovative in nature and global in reach to create our own criss-crossing networks of strengthened bilateral relations.”
Being “an active and influential member of multilateral bodies” (such as the EU?) is to be welcomed – but why this continued insistence on bilateralism? Bilateral relations, as a rule, last only as long as the governments / ministers who create them. They are, more often than not, *personal* as much as they are political. Have an Anglophile American president, like Oxford-educated Bill Clinton, you’ll have a close UK-US relationship. Have a US president with no personal connection to the UK, like Obama (who actively models himself on Kennedy – the US president who brought the postwar “Special Relationship” formed under the Eisenhower administration to an ignominious end with UK-US clashes over Bluestreak and Arabian oil claims), that relationship will wane.
Then Hague – halfway through his speech – moves on to the EU. And here – to my surprise – is a lot of promise:
“within groupings such as the EU, it is no longer sensible or indeed possible to focus our effort on the largest countries at the expense of smaller members. Of course France and Germany remain our crucial partners which is why the Prime Minister visited them in his first days in office. But for the UK to exert influence and generate creative new approaches to foreign policy challenges we need to look further and wider. The EU is at its best as a changing network where its members can make the most of what each country brings to the table. We are already seeking to work with many of the smaller member states in new and more flexible ways, recognising where individual countries or groupings within the EU add particular value.”
Slightly patronising and paternalistic? Certainly. But also sensible (bar the implicit slight to France and Germany). I’ve long argued that, when it comes to the EU, “one size fits all” is not a sensible approach – what makes any economy or polity strong is not uniformity, but diversity. Only through diversity can you weather economic storms, and only through diversity will innovation be encouraged and prosper. Is this what Hague is after? Or is this just a drive back towards his old favourite of a Europe of nation states?
Either way, encouraging words about Turkey (referring to it as “Europe’s biggest emerging economy”, thus confirming the UK’s continued support for Turkish EU membership) as well as hints about active engagement with drives towards a common EU foreign and security policy (something previously strongly resisted by successive British governments) give some room for hope. And despite our different views on the role the EU should play, it is impossible for me to disagree with Hague’s take in this paragraph:
“we are determined as a Government to give due weight to Britain’s membership of the EU and other multilateral institutions. It is mystifying to us that the previous Government failed to give due weight to the exercise of British influence in the EU. They neglected to ensure that sufficient numbers of bright British officials entered EU institutions, and so we now face a generation gap developing in the British presence in parts of the EU where early decisions and early drafting take place. Since 2007, the number of British officials at Director level in the European Commission has fallen by a third and we have 205 fewer British officials in the Commission overall. The UK represents 12% of the EU population. Despite that, at entry-level policy grades in the Commission, the UK represents just 1.8% of the staff, well under the level of other major EU member states. So the idea that the last government was serious about advancing Britain’s influence in Europe turns out to be an unsustainable fiction. Consoling themselves with the illusion that agreeing to institutional changes much desired by others gave an appearance of British centrality in the EU, they neglected to launch any new initiative to work with smaller nations and presided over a decline in the holding of key European positions by British personnel. As a new Government we are determined to put this right.”
And about time too. Britain has been moaning about EU legislation for decades now – all the while being one of the largest EU member states, so more than capable of massively influencing that legislation before it even gets put to a vote, if only the UK could be bothered. Instead, we have always seemed to prefer to moan about “EU impositions” after the fact – because that’s far easier than actively engaging to ensure that those impositions comply more closely with our own wishes.
Active British engagement with the EU has long been overdue – even if that engagement is to be of the eurosceptic variety. Because, again, as I’ve long argued – the EU *needs* more critical voices to be raised at its heart if it is to have any hope at all of doing the best it can for the people of Europe.