Anand Menon: Europe and the war. Will the unity engendered by Russia’s invasion last?

18 Apr

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

‘Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.’ If ever there were a moment to ponder the import of Jean Monnet’s words, it is now. The war in Ukraine has come as a shock to the system of a union that, for years, has failed to deliver when it comes to its security ambitions.

Unlike, say, the Eurozone or migration crises, events in Ukraine have not proven intrinsically divisive. In the face of the armed invasion of a neighbouring sovereign state by a country already recognised as a potential threat, and acting in lockstep with the United States, unity amongst member states has been (relatively) easy to maintain. If the Donald Trump presidency (and accompanying threats – at least according to John Bolton – to leave NATO) had illustrated the fragility of the NATO shield, Ukraine has rammed home its continued importance by underlining the reality of the Russian sword.

The shock delivered to the collective EU system seems to have spawned a realisation, going beyond the usual cheap talk, that its ‘geopolitical holiday’ is over. And not simply because of the conflict itself. More broadly, many of the other challenges the Union faces in its neighbourhood – in the Middle East, Africa, the Sahel, and the Balkans – will be exacerbated by the war. As the EU’s newly minted ‘Strategic Compass’ puts it, the EU is ‘surrounded by instability and conflicts’.

How has the EU responded?

At Versailles in March, EU leaders declared their intention to ensure the EU could ‘take more responsibility for its own security’. The Strategic Compass published ten days later declared that the ‘EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor.’

And, crucially, member states seem intent on rising to the challenge. In a dramatic half hour on 27 February, Olaf Scholtz reversed decades of German strategic thinking. German defence spending will rise from 1.5 per cent in 2021 to two per cent; a 100-billion-euro fund will be created for the armed forces. Germany will become the world’s third biggest military spender.

Nor is Germany alone. Denmark and Poland have also announced increases in defence spending. The former has announced a referendum on its opt-out from EU security policies. Finland and Sweden are reconsidering the issue of NATO membership. And, in a stark break with past reticence, the EU itself pledged to provide Ukraine with €1 billion in military assistance.

There is of course a long way to go before rousing words are translated into meaningful action. Yet it does seem that one consequence of the current crisis will be significantly enhanced European military capabilities.

So far, so overdue. Europeans have been free riders on American power for far too long. However, capabilities are one thing. Deploying them is quite another. Taking greater responsibility for European security implies working collectively. Working collectively, in turn, requires consensus (because a genuine ‘European Army’ is not on the cards). Perhaps the biggest question emerging from the present crisis is whether the unity engendered by the Russian invasion will last.

While the EU has imposed five separate sanctions packages on Russia, the longer the conflict lasts, or the nastier it gets, the greater the pressure will be to extend these to cover oil and gas. Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, however, are highly dependent on Russian gas exports, raising the prospect of bitter arguments to come.

Which raises the thornier question as to how member states might respond to Russian attempts to negotiate a settlement. Emmanuel Macron has maintained a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, despite the obvious irritation this caused among some of the former’s partners (‘nobody negotiated with Hitler’, as the Polish Prime Minister put it). A firm offer of de-escalation in return for concessions on sanctions might well exacerbate such tensions.

Then there is Ukraine itself. While many of the Central European and Baltic states favour a rapid path to EU membership, the French and Dutch have expressed reservations. The Versailles declaration was typically vague, promising support for Ukraine in ‘pursuing its European path’ whilst affirming (meaninglessly) that ‘Ukraine belongs to our European family’. Again, it is not hard to imagine the debate about the appropriate relationship with a post-war Ukraine becoming a running sore within the EU.

And of course such sores existed well before the current conflict. Internal disputes over the rule of law are now being viewed through the lens of events in Ukraine. The European Commission is preparing to release billions in recovery funds for Poland, which has been in the frontline of the refugee crisis. In contrast, two days after the re-election of Viktor Orbán (with his clear sympathies for Putin), the Commission announced plans to trigger a rule of law mechanism allowing it to deprive Hungary of millions of euros in scheduled payments.

It is too early to predict the possible medium-term consequences of all this. On the one hand, the crisis might prompt Poland to reconcile with the European Union. Or, it might encourage political leaders in Warsaw to believe they can act as they like at home as long as they keep in step with EU external policy. As for Hungary, with Orbán’s refusal to countenance weapons deliveries or sanctions on Russian gas exports already straining relations with other member states, it seems reasonable to assume that tensions between Budapest and Brussels will continue to bedevil the Union.

However endless the conflict in Ukraine may be coming to feel, we are still in its early phase. And this might be the easy phase as far as the EU is concerned. How long the war lasts, and the circumstances in which it ends will obviously help shape its longer-term consequences for the Union. It seems likely, though, that member states will emerge with enhanced military capabilities. Whether or not they agree on the foreign policy objectives to which these capabilities will contribute, however, is far from certain.

Alicia Kearns: This week’s NATO summit must be used to speed Russia’s defeat

22 Mar

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

Last week, I had the humbling privilege of hosting a delegation of Ukrainian MPs. They call themselves the Women’s Diplomatic Battalion of Ukraine: Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko. It is currently treason for a Ukrainian MP to leave their country, but the four had secured special presidential dispensations to visit the UK to secure further support from their foremost bilateral ally.

At the time of writing, it is Day 23 of Putin’s invasion – an invasion that has followed almost exactly the intelligence assessments I received in Kyiv in January: Putin would invade within the month, he would seek to decapitate the country by occupying Kyiv and that, contrary to his assessments, the Ukrainian people would fight like lions.

It was also foreseen then that there would be an enormous capability and speed gap between Putin’s understanding of his armed forces and the reality. This has all played out, with our Ukrainian allies pulverising Russian troops thanks to British NLAWs (Next Generation Anti-tank weapons), American Javelins and Turkish Bayraktar drones provided in anticipation of invasion.

The Russian setbacks are extraordinary. There are rumours that ultra-loyalist “Zagradotryady” had to be formed – barrier units to shoot Russian soldiers who retreat or desert. But these losses have unleashed a new level of barbarity; in which Putin’s forces indiscriminately bomb civilians in an attempt to break Ukraine’s resolve.

This week, an emergency NATO Summit is being held, and the UK’s voice is pivotal. We must redouble our efforts around Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, surge support for the humanitarian catastrophe and bolster deterrence against chemical weapons’ use, as well as launching deterrence diplomacy to prevent Putin’s aggression from turning to the Western Balkans.

On defensive capabilities, the UK is walking a line whereby we cannot be accused by Putin of escalating the conflict, and culpability for any escalation is on him. There has been much discussion about a no-fly zone and, whilst all options must remain on the table, these are proving a distraction from the meaningful efforts of the UK to establish a de-facto no-fly zone through the use of surface-to-air weapons.

Through this means, Putin’s forces have already been unable to establish air dominance and are barely able to fly in the daytime. We must entirely deny them the air, and the deployment of new StarStreak missiles announced by Ben Wallace will further support this aim.

It is artillery causing a great deal of the damage we’re seeing, and at the NATO summit our allies must step forward with anti-artillery weapons. In this respect we have been world-leading, but our counterparts are not pulling their weight. Just one-fifth of Germany’s promised (if very late) defensive weapons have arrived. Ukraine fights for our shared freedoms, and if our allies fail Ukraine now, they fail us all.

On the humanitarian side, just one word is needed to understand the depravity of Putin: Mariupol. Once a coastal hub for heavy industry and education, Ukraine’s besieged city has become a byword for the barbarity of his campaign.

Ninety per cent of its buildings are damaged or destroyed, and its population of just under half a million has been without food or water for days. Civilians are forced to drink sewer water and, last Wednesday, the city theatre – where women and children were sheltering – was destroyed by Russian air strikes. Satellite photos show that before it was hit, the Russian word for children, “DETI” had been spelled out in large letters by the building in the hope Russian pilots would find a conscience. Mariupol is Ukraine’s Aleppo.

However, there’s one enormous difference: aid agencies just aren’t on the ground working to preserve life and protect the vulnerable. The Government has just pledged another £80 million of aid, and the generosity and goodwill of British public is likely also in the millions.

But while we are giving, Ukraine is having difficulty receiving, as international agencies squabble over mandates and appallingly, the idea that Russian permission is needed to be on the ground. These same agencies were working on the ground in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – why have they abandoned Mariupol? We must lead calls for international humanitarian bodies to step in to save lives; it is not enough to be in Lviv alone.

There is an equally dark element of this conflict that has been largely absent from reporting: rape and sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence are too often silenced by the shame that is wrongly inflicted upon them. In Ukraine, women are being raped, and that almost certainly means that men and children are as well. There are reports of women over 60, those unable to get out, being raped and then hung or committing suicide. The International Criminal Court prosecutes crimes against humanity, including rape. The UK should lead efforts to expose and document these war crimes and support survivors.

As Putin grows more desperate, his use of thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions becomes more extensive, and we face the threat of chemical weapons use. We and our allies must determine now the repercussions Putin would face: we have a legal duty to intervene if chemical weapons are used, and that is a duty we must not fail.

Much has been made of the threat of Putin pressing his big red button, but this belies a much more likely reality. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors, several of which are now controlled by invading Russian forces. Destroying a nuclear reactor is very difficult, but damaging a nuclear waste facility is frighteningly feasible, and any such incident would disperse radioactive particulates across Europe, reaching the UK, as they did following the Chernobyl disaster.

NATO and all freedom-loving nations must be resolute in telling Putin now, that any nuclear incident in Ukraine – no matter how extensive the false flags – will be met with the swiftest and harshest repercussions.

Whilst we rightly focus on Ukraine, we must not forget Putin’s wider ambitions and the potential of a second front in the Western Balkans.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina threatened the country with the “same” as Ukraine. There is a fragile peace, one already under attack from Putin’s stooges such as the secessionist leader, Milorad Dodik.

Now is the time for NATO to prove that deterrence diplomacy can work, and prevent bloodshed on two fronts. Certain European countries disregarded the UK and US’s intelligence assessments on an invasion of Ukraine. At the NATO Summit we must ensure the same complacency and arrogance does not enable bloodshed in Bosnia.

It was a difficult goodbye last week. These courageous women travelled back to Ukraine knowing that Putin has put all Ukrainian MPs on one of two lists: a kill list, and those to be taken to Moscow.

One sentence our Ukrainian counterparts used repeatedly haunts me: “You will have no choice but to intervene, but this decision is being measured not in hours or days, but by the numbers of Ukrainians killed.” These brave MPs made their mark in Parliament this week, and did their country proud. When the war is over, and Ukraine has won, we’ll all meet again in Kyiv; but for now we must use this NATO summit to do all we can to hasten Putin’s defeat.

Jeremy Black: This crisis will require a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention

1 Mar

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

Real people fear, suffer and die. That is the nature of war. Conflict is also intensely political, not just because war is waged in order to enforce policies and determine decisions, but also because observers recalibrate their world, its hopes, fears, opportunities and nightmares. What yesterday appeared of great consequence is rendered redundant and new contexts provide the basis for judgment.

The Ukraine conflict will not end las the Falklands invasion did with the fall of the aggressive government and a situation that can be readily policed. Instead, whatever the short-term outcome and resulting position, this situation will fester, which will pose major challenges for statecraft, and for the stability both of Ukraine and of surrounding areas.

Russia has taken on a huge task, one that ultimately depends on installing a pliant government. Ukraine (233,031 square miles) compares to such previous areas of intervention as the Korean Peninsula’s 85,232, Vietnam’s 128,066 and Czechoslovakia’s 78,871.

Moreover, whereas the Soviets invaded Manchuria (390,625) in 1945 with two million troops, Vladimir Putin, who cannot draw on the same land forces as Stalin, has deployed fewer than 200,000.

Moreover, Russia cannot draw on the support of the Warsaw Pact allies as the Soviet Union did when invading Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, modern missiles offer little for the control of over 40 million people, and you cannot have a secret policeman at everyone’s elbow.

So, due to arrogance and stupidity, Putin, with his unprovoked, illegal, and totally unnecessary aggression, has put Russia in a very difficult position. Yet, however badly it goes, it is hard to see any Russian government letting Ukraine become a member of NATO because, although neither is a threat to Russia, that is not how they are considered by the paranoid Russian leadership.

On the mega-strategic level, this Russian attitude to Ukraine is made more difficult because of the range of other crises in which Russia could play a more or less hostile role, from East to South-West Asia and the Balkans to the Caribbean. A hostile Russia could make such issues as Iranian aggression, Chinese expansionism, and North Korean volatility far more difficult, and could further empower dictatorial allies or would-be allies, a list by no means limited to Belarus, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, none of which offer a pleasant prospect for Ukraine.

Western policymakers are going to have to consider the knock-on impact of the specific crisis, and the need to recalibrate tripwires elsewhere, both diplomatic and military.

The ability of the West to act with unity in this crisis will require continual care which means the need for real skill on the part of the Foreign Office and its ministers, and a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention.

There is also the political wake within Britain. Covid costs and attention hit hard at this government, forcing the jettisoning of projects, such as the Yorkshire spur of HS2, and, more seriously, weakening its attention and energy. Differently, the same is the case with the Ukraine crisis, which, with Putin’s talk about nuclear alert, makes the relative inconsequence of the Covid pandemic more apparent.

Domestic governance will be harder as projects are cancelled and hopes brought low, and, aside from resulting problems, it would be unrealistic not to assume that Russia will meddle in domestic politics, not least by continuing to support separatist movements.

This situation ensures a need for maturity and judgment in the short term, but also consideration of the degree to which our democratic system is undermined from within by anti-democratic forces. The Soviet Union did so with some success during the Cold War, not least through providing assistance via allies to the Provisional IRA and the National Union of Miners, and it is naïve to expect that the same will not recur. This provides a particular need for government to consider how best to monitor, assess and, if necessary, counter dangerous, if not treasonable, domestic opposition.

As with the Cold War, this is a task that ranges widely, to include intellectual division. Indeed, there is a clear context in terms of culture wars, which the Left repeatedly appears to be winning, not least in the universities. Many who denounce a long past of the British empire and of the Atlantic slave trade appear all-too-oblivious about Russian imperialism and about the enslavement of the Ukrainians. What might appear a troubling absence of values is in fact a commitment against our country.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Garvan Walshe: The Integrated Review’s tilt to Asia could leave us vulnerable closer to home – and Putin

18 Mar

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Integrated Review has emerged as two documents in one. Much of it focuses on trying to bring together different types of threat to our security – from hostile states to terrorist groups, hybrid warfare and misinformation, as well as longer term problems like climate change.

It is full of sensible recommendations for “deeper integration across government”, better crisis management, more coherent policy development and so forth. This is as fine as it is not new (remember Tony Blair’s “joined-up government”?). It would be strange policy paper indeed that advocated the promotion of incoherence and the implementation of contradictory policies.

But government always has to do many different things at once, each making compelling (but often contradictory) demands on policy, reflecting different political constituencies and requirements, and promoted by people with the different personal agendas, as is to be expected in a democracy. Addressing this diversity takes time and thought that is always in short supply. The review is part of that process of thought, and worthwhile for that reason alone.

It is also the first serious attempt at developing a new foreign policy doctrine for the UK since Brexit, and the Government has been wise to wait until the end of the Trump Administration before releasing it.

An unstable, corrupt, semi-authoritarian United States would have made an uncomfortable partner indeed in a world otherwise dominated by a resentful European Union and an assertive China. It is Biden’s restoration of sane, boring US leadership that makes a realistic post-Brexit foreign and security policy feasible. The Review is right to worry about China’s rise, and right, too, to recognise that the post-cold war world moment of Atlantic triumph is passing.

This last half decade has seen the return of geopolitics in the assertion of power by an adventurous Russia and an increasingly hardfline China.

Yet if there is cause for concern in this Review it is that the politics has crowded out the geo. Take, for instance, increasing the cap of available nuclear warheads. Perhaps it is useful to have the freedom to have more available, but without more submarines to launch them it is hard to see what practical they could it could have. It’s not as if the new Dreadnought-class submarines would have time, during a nuclear exchange, to swim back up the Clyde to reload. The proposal did, however, managed to nicely provoke the left.

It’s the “geo” that should give more pause for thought. The Review grandly divides the world into “Euro-Atlantic” and “Indo-Pacific” regions, without really acknoweledging that we’re right in the middle of one of them, and 6,000 miles away from the other.

I’m all in favour of standing up to Chinese aggression (and was even involved in this effort to come up with some ideas about how it might be done), and the Government, again, is right to reverse the beggary of the Osborne-Mandelson erea, when Falun Gong flags were removed from protestors lest they offend the Chinese premier, and the unwise and expensive contract for Hinkley Point C was agreed. Yet strategy is the art of applying means to secure ends, and this is where the Review’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” falls short.

It is indeed the case that the most serious threats to democracy and freedom on this planet are likely to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party, but it doesn’t follow from that that Britain’s main role should involve the prepositioning of military equipment in Asia.

Rather, the greater risk of conflict in Asia means that the UK’s aviation and maritime capability would be required to maintain deterrence against Russia in the event of a major conflict in Asia on which US resources had to be concentrated.

That would clearly be much harder achieve if most of the Royal Navy is in the Pacific protecting the Queen Elizabeth from Chinese anti-ship missiles. Such back-filling may not be the most exciting task but, given the facts of geography tilting to Asia, we risk finding ourselves in the position of the 1990s Colombian goalkeeper Higuita, who would pay upfield while leaving his net undefended.

It is in Europe, after all where Russia tries to make inroads, to the alarm of Poland, the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. It is to Europe’s south where the main ungoverned spaces that host terrorist training camps survive, and it is to Europe’s south-east where a difficult Turkey-EU relationship poses problems in the Western Balkans and Aegean.

And as much as the natural impulse of Brexit is to prove Britain’s openness and optimism by striking out to Asia, the Indo-Pacific tilt increases Britain’s security dependence on Europe, and in particular on the EU’s own institutions that are growing in military and policy-coordination capability. The debate in Paris and Berlin as well as the more traditionally integrationalist Brussels Rome, and Madrid now centres around achieving “strategic autonomy” (code for being able to do more without the US) for a more integrated European policy bloc. One of the strongest arguments against it has been that doing so would unnecessarily alienate the UK, whose interests also require it to contribute to European security.

The creation of such a strategically autonomous bloc has not, to put it mildly, been a British foreign policy objective over the last few hundred years, but a British decision to concentrate on projecting power in Asia would leave gaps, in the event that the United States is unable or unwilling to come to Europe’s defence. If the Government is convinved that a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is in the national interest, it needs to give more thought to who will backfill for us, and in particular our Nordic allies, when the next Russian provocation comes.

David Lidington: We have left the EU and there is no turning back. Here’s what our new relationship with Europe should look like.

29 Dec

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

Ursula von der Leyen’s tone was elegiac, Boris Johnson’s conciliatory. Their first public statements announcing that a deal had been agreed marked a significant shift in tone. Both leaders looked to a future in which the United Kingdom and the European Union could move beyond the fractious quarrels of the last four years and forge a new partnership in the months and years ahead.

The Commission President quoted T.S Eliot’s line that “…to make an end is to make a beginning”, while the Prime Minister spoke of how the United Kingdom would continue to be “culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically” attached to Europe. The following day, Michael Gove said that the deal would be “the start of a special relationship” between this country and the EU.

This isn’t about rejoining the EU. Even for someone like me – unrepentant at having campaigned to Remain back in 2016 – the prospect of revisiting in reverse all the agonies and divisions of the last four years is profoundly unappealing, as is the prospect of EU membership without the rebates or opt-outs we once enjoyed. The challenge for our country and for our fellow European democracies now is to work out new ways of working together to uphold values and defend interests that we share.

Every European country wants to address the climate emergency, disrupt and defeat terrorism and organised crime and resist efforts by Russia to subvert democratic values and institutions in our continent. We all want to see political stability in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa – and know from hard experience that civil war, ethnic conflict and corrupt or ineffective governance allow criminal networks and extremist doctrines to thrive.

The incoming US President values alliances and international institutions, but will also expect European allies not only to spend more on defence and security (where the UK is indeed setting an example) but to show political leadership in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and in Africa, and to contribute support in the Indo-Pacific region, which Joe Biden, like his recent predecessors, will see as the chief focus of United States strategic interest.

Our country remains a European power but one which, like France, also has global interests and a global outlook. We should not see a strategic partnership with the Member States of the EU and the EU institutionally as an alternative to “Global Britain” but as an important aspect of it.

It will take time for bruises to heal, but I’ve been struck by how, even during difficult, sometimes acrimonious divorce talks with the EU, the Prime Minister boosted Britain’s military contribution to the French-led counter-terrorist action in the Sahel and how, announcing the merger of the Foreign Office and DfID, he cited the Western Balkans and Ukraine as places where important interests were at stake.

On key global issues – climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, Israel/Palestine – the Johnson government has chosen a position closer to the European mainstream than to the White House. The E3 of Britain, France and Germany has continued to work in partnership on geo-political challenges.

Over the next ten years, a United Kingdom outside the EU will need to renew and strengthen both its bilateral relationships with other European countries and its partnership with the EU collectively.

With national governments, this partly about finding a substitute for the regular contact between British Ministers and officials and their counterparts that for nearly 50 years, has taken place at and in the margins of Council of Ministers meetings. It wasn’t only the formal Council that mattered, but the breakfast, lunch or coffee with an opposite number from another country – or even just the quiet word in a corner about some issue.

Since we left the EU on 31 January this year, there’ve not been those same regular opportunities to get to know and do business with other European governments. We’ll need alternatives. It is good that the Government has signalled its intention to strengthen our diplomatic presence across Europe – but we should also consider formalising arrangements for annual summits and joint ministerial meetings with different European countries, as we already do with France.

The UK will also need over time to develop a strategic partnership with the EU as an institution. This is partly because we shall want to discuss issues that under the EU treaties fall to the Union collectively to decide and partly too because the reality is that even the big EU members spend a lot of effort trying to shape a common EU policy approach. The UK will need to operate at both national government and EU level just as the Americans, Swiss and Norwegians already do.

This is to a large extent already envisaged in the Free Trade Agreement, through the Partnership Council and its various sub-committees established to manage and monitor how the deal is implemented. As we go forward, UK policymakers will need to understand the debates within Member States and EU institutions on subjects like data transfer and privacy, and try from outside the tent to influence the outcome in a way that protects our interests.

The same is true about climate, a top-level priority for the Johnson government especially with the COP 26 summit scheduled for 2021. Should the UK’s planned emissions trading scheme be more or less the same as the EU’s? Will the UK’s requirements for green finance be accepted in the rest of Europe? Understanding each other’s positions and, where possible, working together on the global stage should work to our mutual advantage.

NATO will remain the cornerstone of Europe’s collective defence. The EU should not try to supplant or duplicate NATO’s work. Equally, NATO cannot do everything. There are both functional and geographical limits to NATO’s mission. In an age of hybrid conflict, not just military power but economic leverage (including sanctions), information, development spending and anti-corruption work – things that are more an EU than a NATO responsibility -also matter. Truth is, we shall need to work both bilaterally with individual governments and with the different international institutions.

Above all, we need to focus on the strategic picture. Throughout the world democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under pressure. Russia and China are increasingly assertive about the merits of their very different systems of government. The idea of a rules-based international order, fundamental to both our freedom and our prosperity, is being challenged. Criminal and extremist networks operate across national borders and are as internet-savvy as any legitimate business. Outside the EU, the United Kingdom’s interests impel us to find a new model of partnership with our closest neighbours and allies in Europe while at the same time reaching out to like-minded countries worldwide. Now is the time for the world’s democracies, in Europe and beyond, to stand together.