British foreign policy is in crisis, warn senior diplomatic figures

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Britain is suffering a crisis of confidence in foreign policy that leaves it “sidelined in Syria, ineffective in Ukraine, unwilling in Europe, and inimical towards refugees”, a report by some of Britain’s most senior former diplomats, intelligence officers and foreign policy academics has warned.

As David Cameron prepares to issue a comprehensive list of the changes his government hopes to achieve as part of its EU renegotiation, the authors of the report also urge Britain to finally settle its relations with Europe.

In the analysis, they write: “Constantly fretting about the formal status of our association with the EU restricts what the UK can in practice achieve through that relationship. In, out, or semi-detached, the fact is that working in and with Europe is a necessary component of nearly every area of policy”.

The report – authored by senior establishment figures including the former head of the joint intelligence committee Lady Neville-Jones and the former British ambassador to Washington Sir Christopher Meyer – comes as Cameron intensified the EU debate by suggesting that national security could be at risk if Britain voted to leave.

The prime minister said at the weekend: “As we confront fresh threats and dangers to our country, I am in no doubt that, for Britain, the European question is not just a matter of economic security, but of national security, too – not just a matter of jobs and trade but of the safety and security of our nation.”

However, Downing Street appeared to row back on Cameron’s threat to reconsider Britain’s membership of the EU if his calls for reform were met with “a deaf ear”. No 10 released extracts from a speech that Cameron will deliver on Tuesday, when he announces his terms for continued EU membership for the first time in the form of a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European council.

In the speech, Cameron will say he is not “for one moment” saying Britain could not survive outside the EU. But he questions whether it would be wise to leave.

“The question is whether we would be more successful in than out? Whether being in the European Union adds to our economic security or detracts from it? Whether being in the European Union makes us safer or less safe? That is a matter of judgment.”

Asked to elaborate on what the national security issues were relating to British membership of the EU, a No 10 source said it was a matter of having global alliances, of “where Britain fits on the world stage” and “who you call in an emergency”.

Cameron has not ruled out recommending British withdrawal in a referendum, which ministers would reportedly like to hold in June next year if they can get agreement on the renegotiation package at December’s EU summit. But it is no secret that the prime minister does not want Britain to leave. The briefing before Tuesday’s speech suggests he may have decided to adopt a more pro-EU tone in response to complaints that government ambivalence is ceding too much airtime to the very vocal Leave campaigns.

As well as Meyer and Neville-Jones, other authors of the damning report on Britain’s foreign policy prepared by a commission convened by the LSE include the former head of British intelligence Sir Richard Dearlove, the prime minister’s former adviser on international affairs Jonathan Luff and HSBC’s chief economist Stephen King.

The report claims that the crisis of confidence stems from a crisis of identity as “successive prime ministers and foreign secretaries shy away from significant foreign policy engagements”, leaving Britain “self-absorbed and insular”.

In its report, the commission says: “There is a great deal of disquiet among the UK’s diplomatic community that British foreign policy lacks a clear purpose, and that as a result there is an approach to the distribution of resources that lacks strategic coherence”.

The stinging criticism of the state of UK foreign policy will be come as a relief in parts of the diplomatic service as they fight further Treasury spending cuts and try to persuade the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, not to allow the Foreign Office (FCO) to become a sales department for British exports. There has been concern that the Iraq war foreign policy failure has seen Britain become increasingly peripheral to key decisions in Brussels, Washington and Moscow.

The commission says: “Britain must itself be willing to be at the table on international issues, offering its varied contributions, and prepared to do more than just its share. In recent years, on issues such as student visas, migration and refugees, and the future of Europe, this has not been the case. Changing our strategic mentality to focus on the security and prosperity of all rather than the immediate economic interests of a few will reap benefits in the long-term.”

The commission says the UK can claim to be the pre-eminent world soft power and as a result the FCO should seek a role as an agenda setter and coalition builder across a range of global challenges.

But this can only happen “if it is prepared to reinvent itself as an enabler of cooperation, focused on using its influence to contribute to the commons, rather than thinking in terms of narrow British interests”. In a globalised world, Britain can make the case for global public goods, the commission says.

With the FCO budget again vulnerable to 30% cuts in this month’s spending review – unlike the Department of International Development (DfID) – the commission favours some merging of the aid and diplomatic budgets, if not a re-merger of the two departments.

They reject “mandatory GDP-based targets for funding particular departments or issues”. Such targets are “economically and strategically incoherent, and the protection of particular departments builds arbitrary and peculiar incentives into the process of strategy”, the commission says.

The commission finds that Britain is now spending less on diplomacy per capita than most comparable economies and that due to the division between the aid budget and the FCO budget, the “UK is running in effect two foreign diplomacies with different priorities and different command structures.

“DfID sees itself as apart from the discourse on foreign policy and national security, because the stated purpose of international development is the alleviation of poverty, not the direct promotion of British interests”.

The commission accepts aid should not be seen as an adjunct of foreign policy but says part of the solution lies in “preventing UK foreign policy prioritising commercial diplomacy above all else. The licensing of strategic arms exports is particular case in point: in any number of cases, including Libya and Egypt, British foreign policy is delivering development and governance assistance on the one hand whilst supplying arms on the other”.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour and Andrew Sparrow, for The Guardian on Monday 9th November 2015 00.00 Europe/London

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