Yesterday I attended a packed Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club, on the UK's future post-Brexit foreign policy. Malcolm Rifkind spoke for the Conservatives, Jack Straw for the Labour Party and Menzies Campbell for the Liberal Democrats. It is the largest lunchtime event I have ever attended at the NLC, over 40 years, and it was standing room only.
Present from the UK Liberal Democrats were myself. Lyndsay Northover and William Wallace.
The content of the debate, especially the interactions with the audience of (mostly) diplomats, are of considerable interest to Lib Dem 'internationals' to the extent that I thought it worthwhile attempting a synthesis.
Rifkind went first and in an entertaining and erudite manner made only one straightforward initial point. He drew an analogy between the UK's relationship with the EU, and the group of countries that negotiated the JCPOA with Iran. He offered the view that after Brexit especially on defence & security matters, there would be a flexible structural arrangement of '4 + 1 + 1' or something similar, meaning four of the five permanent members of the UNSC, plus the EU, plus the UK.
The subtext of Rifkind's talk was essentially that the UK will not lose influence by being out of the UK because new flexible arrangements would evolve preserving the status quo.
Straw's presentation was more granular in that he went more specifically into UK foreign policy responses to Brexit, focusing on the UK as a European state with close defence and security cooperation with EU members and other European states.
He said that Brexit was an inevitability that had to be faced, even though he had voted to remain. He said the EU was in need of very significant reform, especially fiscal reform, and cited the illogical outcomes of which countries were net contributors to the EU budget and which net recipients. His criticisms of the EU continued hinting at Germany's domination of the EU, including the way that the EU has handled Turkey as an applicant and how AKK in Germany had endorsed German suggestions that the French permanent UNSC seat should eventually become an EU seat, after Brexit. The point appeared to be that the UK might in the end be better off out.
Turning to the UK's Brexit response aimed at keeping its global role, Straw explained that outside the EU the FCO would need a much larger budget if it was to do a better job and take advantage from being outside the EU. He said both UK soft and hard power are underestimated and should be developed further, post-Brexit. Straw said the UK is not a standard EU state but a state with special status in the world - a large military and global soft power, as well as being a driver of NATO in Europe and having a permanent UNSC seat. He said that the UK needed to be more flexible over the adherence to 0.7% of GDP in development aid spending and 2% in defence spending, believing that these percentages and definitions of development and defence would benefit from review, post-Brexit.
NATO would become more important post-Brexit, he said, especially in dealing with the Russian Federation. He hinted that an underlying political aim was to address the problem of Germany's closeness to the Russian Federation especially in energy, suggesting in effect that there were vulnerabilities with respect to the EU and Russian Federation: related to the fact that Russian GDP was small compared to the EU, but that its military capacity and massive nuclear arsenal were many times larger.
Menzies Campbell's presentation was, of course, critical of Brexit, but in specifics was much more direct and less 'constructively esoteric'.
He started by emphasising the problems for EU members associated with US policy towards defence, under Trump, suggesting that now is the time for EU unity, not division and distraction.
Campbell cited the effective cancellation by the US of Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, and the lack of progress in putting the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into effect. Campbell referred to changes in Russian nuclear weapons doctrine (potentially as a consequence) as an example of heightened tensions, and of great concern.
Campbell said, with particular emphasis, that there will be nothing globally we can do better after Brexit than we can do now.
He said for example, far from being able to use increased trade with the Commonwealth to counter the impact of reduced trade with the EU post-Brexit, we will just find ourselves less able to address problems in Commonwealth countries like human rights or lack of democracy. [It is assumed that this is a reference to the problems in rolling over developing country trade agreements with the EU, in which Commonwealth countries, sensing UK desperation, ask for human rights or democracy clauses to be removed]
Rather than arguments for successful post-Brexit independence, Campbell cited UK stature with respect to nuclear weapons, its UNSC permanent seat, having the biggest defence budget, being in Five Eyes, and being influential in the US (as a voice for Europe), all as factors which made the UK so influential in the EU; which is very far from the 'Brussels imposes rules on the UK' narrative.
However with the UK out of the EU, NATO and these factors mean that new NATO/UK/EU defence structures will be unavoidable. The problem with that, he said, is that this will divert money and effort away from more important priorities like improving defence procurement coordination, technical interoperability, and defence posture & planning integration. He said that the focus on structures and NATO versus EU defence was entirely missing the point since the key issue is defence capability. The EU has been participating for years in efforts, with NATO, to improve defence capability, with US encouragement, so Trump and UK Brexiters are under a misperception.
Campbell said that there is a growing gap between EU and US foreign policy (eg JCPOA)
The challenges ahead, said Campbell include China and trade, and nuclear defence relations.
China is seen in the US as a rival, but for the UK (and EU) it is largely a partner, Campbell said (notwithstanding Gavin Williamson's echo of gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea).
The upcoming negotiations over the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty involving Trump will be one of the most difficult moments in nuclear disarmament in nearly three decades.
Finally Campbell turned to trade, noting that none of the other speakers had referred to 'Global Britain' and post-Brexit trade policy. Campbell enquired whether this was because they regarded the Global Britain narrative as nonsense ?
There were then questions raised by the audience.
Rifkind addressed the Global Britain issue, raised again by an audience member. He said 'Global Britain' is just a way of countering the inevitable accusations against Brexiters, as being Little Englanders and isolationists, and as such 'Global Britain' is only a defensive public perception device and is not a concept that necessarily implies we can do anything in particular better than before Brexit. It is merely aimed at countering a potential vulnerability in public perception.
On the question of differences in EU and US defence policy, he said, EU defence and foreign policy will diverge from that of the US, but the result, post-Brexit is that the UK foreign & defence policy will move closer to the USA. The UK may have support from Eastern and Central Europe in that, since half the EU members want more attention to NATO and less to EU defence, mostly because of Russia.
Straw addressed a question of future UK aid policy, which asked for further clarification. He said that the definition of aid must change. In parts of Africa and SE Asia, he said, Chinese investment has contributed to rapid growth and development, but it is not regarded as aid. Over decades, Western aid has not made a significant contribution to growth. Through recasting aid with this in mind, the UK can improve its soft power, post-Brexit.
Two audience questions were then raised. Jeremy Greenstock asked why scant reference to trade was made in the speeches, despite this being the driver of Brexit for pro-Brexit parliamentarians. Then a foreign diplomat asked a stark question, along the following lines; 'I have heard here today about how the UK might keep its head above water after Brexit, but I haven't heard one thing that the UK expects actually to gain from Brexit'
Campbell said that the only way to gain anything was to stay in the EU. He said that UK-EU and 'EU trade agreement rollover' negotiations were obviously not going well so far, but ultimately the UK will do its level best; for example these days the FCO and commercial policy are better integrated.
On the question of new EU-UK-NATO structures, it seems that a return to the days of the WEU is implied. This organisation had no real functions and did not make any difference in integrating EU and NATO structures, he said. The focus was on structures, not capability, and on the latter the WEU was not involved in steps to improve capability. It was irrelevant, just as any new post-Brexit structures would be.
Straw said that he did not mention trade because all we have is the informal declaration on trade, and the negotiations haven't started on tariffs, free movement etc between the UK and EU. He said he was optimistic that soon all the trade agreements and EU agreement roll overs would be completed and that the UK and EU trade arrangements will be finalised.
Rifkind said that free trade must remain at the heart of international economic policy. However in this respect Trump is a major problem. The UK has to work with partners to address this. That won't change after Brexit. On broader foreign policy, Brexit will enable the UK to pursue foreign policy without being held back by the EU. The EU Foreign Affairs Council, he said, just results in the lowest common denominator, since there is little of substance that all 27 remaining states can agree on. The UK will gain from this.
One notable thing about the meeting was that when the question of what the UK will actually gain from Brexit was raised, there were noises of consent from the whole room.
There was a contrasting assumption in the meeting.
Campbell tended to assume that, if Brexit does not go ahead, the EU will pretty much continue as is. However, it might be a fair assumption that if the UK stays in the EU, the EU will be significantly changed by the experience, maybe for the better.
The tone from Rifkind, and to an extent Straw, implied that the EU was on its way down, Brexit or no Brexit, and so it is not so much a question of what the UK will gain, it is more a question of the UK leaving the sinking ship before it goes down. No doubt the reason why this concept has not been given prominence is that it is more wishful thinking from Brexiters than a fair factual assessment.
I attempted to canvas views privately around the room from various diplomats.
A senior diplomat from a 'prominent South Asian Commonwealth member' described Straw and Rifkind's expositions as 'deluded imperial fantasies'. A deputy head of mission from a 'prominent GCC state' said sagely with a wry smile 'There must be covert reasons for Brexit because he overt ones don't really stand up to detailed scrutiny'.
A diplomat from a large South American country in the news a lot recently said 'I agree about the dangers of being a vassal state, but a vassal of whom ?'.