Liam Fox is wrong to suggest that the EU controls the Foreign Office

Opinion piece (The Spectator)
14 May 2016

Former Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute last week that the Foreign Office had been reduced to “little more than the EU embassy in Whitehall”. He is not the first person to accuse the FCO of promoting the interests of foreigners above those of Britain. But his analysis is way off target.

Full disclosure: I am a recovering diplomat. I know the Foreign Office’s shortcomings – including its tendency to sit on the fence in a crisis until it is too late; and its habit (now changing, at last) of moving staff with expertise to deal with countries in which they are not an expert. I agree with Dr Fox’s criticism of successive governments for cuts to the FCO, which have left parts of it seriously overstretched at a time of international turmoil.

He is absolutely wrong, however, to suggest that what he calls “the relentless pursuit of a pan-EU diplomatic service” means that the EU runs Britain’s foreign policy, or to imply that the UK should invest less in Europe’s diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS). Rather, the UK has enormous influence over EU foreign policy that it risks squandering.

The Foreign Office shapes European policy by being clear-sighted about British foreign policy objectives, which are reviewed every year as part of the FCO’s business plan; by effective bilateral diplomacy, helping EU partners to see things as London does; but also by using EU machinery to ensure that EU priorities match British priorities.

If Dr Fox set the FCO’s strategic objectives alongside the things that Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, says she is trying to achieve, he would see that the two largely coincide. In one sense, this is inevitable: since decisions under the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy are taken by consensus, there can be nothing in it to which the UK has objected. But more positively, the EU’s priorities match Britain’s because British diplomats work hard to keep them aligned. Whether it is the deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, the (surprisingly effective) sanctions against Russia or successful counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, the EU has implemented policies, but the UK has been central to developing them.

Two processes are now threatening the UK’s influence, however. One is the shift of FCO resources away from Europe towards emerging economies like Brazil, China and India. These countries have great potential as markets, and the FCO should certainly help British firms unlock them. But stripping embassies in EU capitals to the bare bones makes it harder for the UK to lobby effectively on important EU issues – including those that affect trade and Britain’s prosperity.

The second damaging trend is a reduction in Britain’s role in EU forums.The government and the Brexit debate are partly responsible for this: between the 2015 general election and the end of David Cameron’s renegotiation process, few ministers would admit that the best way to solve some problems is through common EU action. The self-exclusion of the Conservative Party from the most powerful political grouping in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party, has also muted Britain’s voice. But there is a longer-term issue.

The number of Britons in the EU’s ‘civil service’ is far smaller than it should be: with more than 12 per cent of the EU’s population, the UK has just over 7 per cent of the staff at policy-making level in the EEAS, and fewer than 5 per cent at the corresponding level in the European Commission. The problem is likely to get worse: the UK holds a reasonable number of senior management positions, but significantly fewer at lower levels. EU officials have to be neutral, but they inevitably bring with them some of the culture and attitudes of their home countries. That is why other member-states strive to get their nationals into positions of influence. But even before the Brexit debate it was clear that fewer British nationals were starting on an EU career. One reason for this may be poor skills, particularly language skills, among British candidates. But people may also be reluctant to do a job that, however well they do it, will earn them nothing but vilification from the British media and many British politicians.

No serious politician suggests that the Ministry of Defence is an American embassy in Whitehall because hundreds of British service personnel serve periods in American headquarters and units, or that the UK should stop pursuing international jobs in NATO because it dilutes the UK’s sovereignty. These jobs are rightly seen as ways to invest in long-term relationships and to exercise influence; and jobs for Britons in the EU should be no different.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. He previously spent 28 years as a British diplomat.