Hague endorses EU foreign policy approach

So the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee has approved the set-up of Europe’s foreign service, as negotiated in Madrid two weeks ago. Formal agreement is expected in plenary after the holidays, allowing the European External Action Service (EEAS) to be operational by the end of the year.

Creation of the EEAS is potentially the most significant of the innovations brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, and it is a nice irony that British foreign secretary William Hague should have given implicit endorsement to the new EU common foreign and security policy in his July 1 speech on the future of  Britain’s foreign policy. He emphasises an enhanced British role in multilateral organisations, in particular “setting out to be highly active and activist in our approach to the European Union and the exercise of its collective weight in the world”.

This is a far cry from Hague’s position when he was opposition spokesman on foreign affairs. In those days he was particularly hostile to the EU external relations policy as conceived by Lisbon. He even warned the British parliament against the appointment of Tony Blair as EU Council president because of the effectiveness he might bring to the job! But that’s another story.

Apparently William Hague’s July 1 speech was warmly welcomed by British diplomats as setting a more positive framework for their work. Its title, Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World, has a contemporary ring (he tells us that he and the Bahrain foreign minister read each others’ tweets!), and it calls for a major strengthening of Britain’s bilateral relations through many different channels with the up-and-coming emerging economies – Brazil, China, India, Turkey, Indonesia. The importance of global networking has been illustrated by the Gaza flotilla crisis and the popular uprising in Iran, notes the speech.

On Europe the foreign secretary is downbeat but positive. There should be greater concentration on UK relations with smaller member states, he says, while recognising that France and Germany “remain our crucial partners”. Relations with Turkey are to be strengthened, with full support for Turkish EU membership.

Hague is quite specific in arguing for a stronger British presence within the EU institutions – currently 1.8 per cent of entry-level “A” officials come from the UK as against its 12 per cent of the EU population.  The number of British “A” officials has fallen by 205 since 2007, he says. “As a new Government we are determined to put this right”.  No opting-out there then, and an approach which is taking a welcome long-term view of Britain’s place in Europe.

It’s not that nationality guarantees support for any particular national policy among EU officials, but it does bring a certain cast of thought and helps to bridge the gap between Brussels and the member state concerned. The last government withdrew support for British students at the College of Europe, many of whose alumni had gone on to a European career. Perhaps we’ll see that support reinstated!

Talking more broadly, I wonder if Hague’s speech has a certain pre-emptive element, stiffening the sinews of British diplomats in advance of troubling times ahead. It puts all the emphasis on soft diplomacy while hard power is in decline. What the speech does not say is that the Foreign Office budget is expected to be cut by £500 million, which will put a severe strain on capabilities, although this may be fudged by transferring overseas development funds to Foreign Office programmes.

Furthermore, the UK’s strategic review of defence and security which will report in the autumn is bound to pose major challenges to the country’s ability to project power and influence abroad.  There will be cuts to Britain’s military capabilities and they will be painful ones.

This is where the European Union, the common foreign and security policy and the common defence and security policy may take on an increasingly valuable role in the UK’s own foreign policy ambitions, as it may for many other member states.  An EU foreign service will be able to assume many functions which national missions currently undertake, while a strong common position on issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme can provide a powerful proxy for national objectives.

Maybe even the EU common defence policy will have something to offer. There is little in William Hague’s speech which implies that a country such as the UK, acting on its own, can any longer project real power beyond the power of words – networked of course! European co-operation is the most effective way to go.