Interview with Dominic Raab: The EU’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol is “pretty analogue in a digital age”

18 Jun

Brexit has resulted in “a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy”. So says Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary since July 2019.

There has not, he suggests, been any comparable change in the attitude of the European Commission, particularly with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, where “the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age”.

Raab questions the idea that the conflicts in Kashmir, and in Israel/Palestine, risk spilling over into British politics.

He denies he is better at chairing meetings than Boris Johnson, admits he is “still not wild” about taking the knee, and contends that the Conservative Party’s new appeal to voters in the North need not be gained at the expense of support in seats such as his own, in the home counties:

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.”

The interview was carried out on Wednesday evening, and ConHome began by asking about the material released that morning by Dominic Cummings, and the period when Johnson was at death’s door and Raab was “covering for the boss”.

ConHome: “Do you agree with today’s report that you are better than the Prime Minister at chairing meetings?”

Raab: “No [laughter].”

ConHome: “Here’s the full quote: ‘Unlike the Prime Minister Raab can chair meetings properly instead of telling rambling stories and jokes. He lets good officials actually question people, so we started to get to the truth.'”

Raab: “What is the question?”

ConHome: “Is this an accurate account?”

Raab: “No, no. I try to do things professionally, and I think the Prime Minister deploys me for that. But actually I think to the extent we’re talking about the period when I was covering for the boss, we were all focussed on doing what he wanted.

“There was a good team effort, in order to get ourselves into good shape for when we hoped he would be back at the helm.”

ConHome: “And what do you think of Cummings himself?”

Raab: “I can’t see any value added from me commenting on the commentary.”

ConHome: “Was there ever actually a moment when the Prime Minister was ill when you thought, ‘I’m going to have to take over’?”

Raab: “When you say ‘take over’, you mean beyond…”

ConHome: “Beyond what you were doing anyway.”

Raab: “I was conscious that he was not well, but also I think I had the pretty firm conviction he’d pull through. But I didn’t know.

“The truth is I thought he was in good hands with the doctors, which he was, exceptional care, and what I knew he’d want, when he came to, and was able to engage, was to know we hadn’t been sitting there, fretting so much over him, but that we’d been getting on doing what needed to be done for the country.

“That was the rationale. And the truth is the Cabinet were brilliant, because it’s a team effort, very disciplined, very professional, and I suppose that sense of worry and concern for someone who’s a colleague, not just our boss, kicked in.”

ConHome: “You never felt a moment of absolute terror, thinking ‘I’m going to have to be a kind of interim figure who…'”

Raab: “Well not really. There was never any news that gave me credible cause for concern. The truth is, people ask me this a lot, I didn’t have a lot of time for my mind to wander. It was pretty hectic.

“The Foreign Office was very busy at the time, and then there was obviously trying to make sure that we steered things through.

“I think I’m right in saying it was around the point at which we were edging towards the five tests of how we would come through lockdown.

“So there was a huge amount of substantive work, the Prime Minister had given us our steer, so there was a load to get on with, and I was just focussed on that really.”

ConHome: “Only a few weeks ago, a convoy went down the Finchley Road with someone shouting ‘F*** the Jews, rape their daughters’.

“Do you think the effect of foreign affairs, and of Israel/Palestine, is intensifying in a malign way here in the UK?”

Raab: “That was a deeply worrying incident and we jumped on it very quick, both in terms of condemning it, but also making sure the Met were aware, and satisfying ourselves that they were on the case, to give the Jewish community the reassurance they needed.

“But this cross-fertilisation of the international realm into domestic policy actually is much more prevalent than that. You can see it on a whole range of issues.

“Because we’ve got such a wonderful international mix in the UK. I am very, very sensitive to the impact on the British Chinese community of what we’re doing.

“When you think about that community, one of the most entrepreneurial, I sat on the Education Select Committee for two years, the British Chinese standards, the parenting, the engagement, from every class level, was exceptional. The contribution they make to cultural life, in lots of different ways.

“You can think of it from both sides in relations to Kashmir.

“If global Britain is going to mean what it says, which we do, of course we’re going to have to be sensitive to and take into account the feelings of those who have immigrated or settled here, or second, third, fourth generation communities.

“The same is true the other way as well. One of the big things that happened, which didn’t get a huge amount of attention, is the Prime Minister’s meeting – it had to be virtual in the end – with Prime Minister Modi, where we set out a road map for ten years, the 2030 road map, including the road map to an FTA.

“Some great stuff on migration and mobility, and young people, young professionals from here and from India being able to come and take advantage of everything the UK and India has to offer.

“Some stuff on cyber and other things, climate change.

“India deemed the UK a Comprehensive Strategic Partner. We’re only the fourth country India’s done that with. Now Prime Minister Modi himself has talked about the living bridge between the UK and India.

“He’s quite a lyrical leader, but actually it’s quite a good way of looking at it.

“And we have quite a few countries, because of our Commonwealth links, because of the travelling nature of Brits, where that’s true.

“But the truth is, if your foreign policy is a combination of pursuing a principled approach, but also delivering the national interest for the people of your country, you ought to be able to navigate that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel, in relation to Israel/Palestine and Kashmir, that the skies are darkening?”

Raab: “Well I don’t think you can combine them together.

“But let me take Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve been out there twice. I was out there recently. I met Yair Lapid as well as Prime Minister, as then was, Netanyahu, and a range of other leading figures.

“There is still going to be a measure of instability. I think the coalition may be fragile, it may be ground-breaking, we don’t know.

“But I think there seems to be a consensus that they need to firm up the ceasefire, and we need to try to avoid a vacuum taking hold, and there’s all sorts of ways we can do that.

“On the Palestinian side, there is an urgent need to shore up and support the moderate Palestinian leadership, and isolate and marginalise Hamas.

“I’m not expecting final status peace talks round the corner by Christmas. On the other hand, if you allow a vacuum to take hold then Hamas will take advantage.

“It’s in the moral and strategic interests of both sides to avoid that.”

ConHome: “In relation to antisemitism here, the effect of Israel/Palestine here, you don’t feel it’s getting worse?”

Raab: “Well I talked to the Chief Rabbi recently, I talked to the Board of Deputies, obviously I’ve got some history of my own.

“I think off the back of Corbyn, and with some of the radicalised elements of the Left articulating themselves, I think there has been a heightened sense of nervousness.

“But I also feel that we can provide the reassurance and that there is enough community cohesion here, not just among the Jewish community, but among British society as a whole, to stand up very vigorously and robustly against that.

“You look back in the Seventies, and you had radicalised groups seeking to take advantage of what was going on in the Middle East, and making their point here at home.

“I think we need to watch it very carefully, but I don’t think there’s a ground shift or a gear change in that happening.”

ConHome: “On India, Labour have put out a leaflet in the Batley and Spen byelection that is almost entirely about foreign affairs. There’s a section about Israel/Palestine, there’s a section about Kashmir where it says, ‘The Conservatives’ links to the BJP must not stand in the way of justice for Kashmir.’

“Are you worried at all that the Kashmir issue is dividing up on party political lines?

“Labour look at the Conservative Party and they say, ‘There are three ministers of Indian heritage in the Cabinet – the Conservatives are taking up a pro-Indian position,’ and you end up with that kind of division, which would be a very bad thing.”

Raab: “Well I don’t think the Labour Party could credibly do that, a) because of the British Indian communities in their constituencies, so from a pure or political interest, or b) given their historic approach to Kashmir, which is that it is for the two sides to resolve this long-standing dispute.

“I’ve never ducked raising the issue of Kashmir and human rights with the Indian government. I did it when I was in Delhi.

“The Labour Party would look incredibly hypocritical, and they would get a backlash from the other community, if they were to try to create this as a wedge issue.”

ConHome: “The Conservatives are now widely perceived as having shifted North both electorally and emotionally. Now you sit for a Surrey seat, Walton and Esher, a commuter seat, a traditionally Tory seat.

“Is there now a danger of your constituents believing the Conservatives are no longer quite so behind them?”

Raab: “The strategy, in political terms, is always to forge an alliance between the aspirational working and middle classes of this country.

“And that’s not new. Look at how successful Thatcher was, albeit in a different time and place, and a different context.

“What we’re doing as global Britain, as a force for good in the world, far from alienating Conservative voters, small-l liberal Conservative voters, I think goes down very well.

“The fact that we put Magnitsky sanctions on everyone from those persecuting the Rohingya to those persecuting the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

“The fact that Brexit is no longer a live issue for most of our constituents, they’re not being asked to vote on it.

“What we’re trying to do is forge that crucial alliance between aspirational working and middle class voters. That’s the elixir of Conservative strategy I think.

“There’s a ceiling on the Lib Dem vote if they only rely on the negative. Can anyone remember a single positive Lib Dem policy, now Brexit’s done?

“They’re campaigning in Chesham and Amersham on HS2, but they voted for it.”

ConHome: “Was Biden right in saying the G7 is in ‘a contest with autocracies’?”

Raab: “I think there’s definitely a sense that democracies are in retreat, if you just look at the numbers. And that the battle for the hearts and minds of the centre ground of the international community is there to be won but needs to be fought with a great vigour and energy.

“It’s great having the US return to the Paris Agreement on climate change. We cannot as a cluster of like-minded countries leave that vacuum in those multilateral institutions, because China and Russia or whoever else will fill it.”

ConHome: “Our ambassadors in say Paris or Berlin, who do they report to? Is it you, as Foreign Secretary? Or is it Lord Frost?”

Raab: “David [Frost] deals with the stuff that takes place under the EU formal mechanisms. He’s responsible for the EU business in relation to the Free Trade Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement.

“I’m responsible for the stuff in relation to the foreign affairs co-operation that we have, and I lead on the bilateral relationships, but obviously the two dovetail quite closely together.

“I don’t feel desperately proprietorial about it for two reasons. One, David’s a brilliant colleague.

“Secondly we are engaged it a process now where we look at our foreign policy in a much more integrated way.

“The truth is the Foreign Office is now much more central. We have a Prime Minister who really believes in the Foreign Office.

“With the merger [with the Department for International Development] I think we can all see that.”

ConHome: “So Brexit has actually worked out to the advantage of the Foreign Office? Because our foreign policy isn’t delegated in any way to Brussels any more. It’s our foreign policy.”

Raab: “I think there’s a massive empowering of the Foreign Office to go out and have a genuine global foreign policy. I’ve been out to the Nordics, I’m very keen on building up the N5 relationship, and the same with the Baltic Three, the Visegrad Four.

“Obviously with the Indo-Pacific stuff that we’re doing, I’m going out to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore next week, there is just a real chance for us to be more energetic, more activist.”

ConHome: “Do you still think that taking the knee is ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’?”

Raab: “I think we all ought to be united in the fight against racism, and we also, if tolerance is to mean anything, should be able to find our own way to express it.

“I’m personally not wild about taking the knee, but if the England team want to do it, it shouldn’t just be respected, it should be supported.”

ConHome: “And should not be booed?”

Raab: “I’m one of those people who don’t believe in booing your own team. Certainly not the England team as they’re embarking on the European championships.”

ConHome: “On the Northern Ireland Protocol, is there any intrinsic greater difficulty in dealing with a Democrat administration, because of the pressure that comes on an American President from an Irish diaspora who are not necessarily familiar with all the intricacies and nuances of policy in Northern Ireland?”

Raab: “So first of all there’s always a slightly different constellation of opportunities and risks depending on who’s in the White House.

“Also, the make-up of Congress. And that’s true regardless of who’s in the White House. I was going and talking to the likes of Richie Neal and the Irish caucus when I was Foreign Secretary before and after the recent US election.

“The Irish lobby on the Hill, which is not just Democrats, it also includes Republicans, feels like it’s got a stake, and does have a stake, in the Good Friday Agreement, I think we respect that, I remember the work that George Mitchell and other Americans did.

“But there’s certainly a job for us to do to make sure first of all that a full, comprehensive picture of what’s going on on the ground is understood, and the impact the Northern Ireland Protocol has for communities on all sides in Northern Ireland.

“And frankly just the bare facts of what’s been going on in terms of the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“If you look at the perimeter of the EU, and you think about the challenges they’ve got from the Central and Eastern European border, right down to the Mediterranean border, and you think of the sliver of the border in Northern Ireland, it is rather striking that one in five of controls and checks for the whole of the EU to police the single market takes place in Northern Ireland.

“I think talking in reasonable terms about the lack of proportionality in that is important. And having a sensible conversation with our US partners is really important. We can’t shrink from that.”

ConHome: “Do you feel you made any progress on that issue at the G7, given what happened before it with the demarche?”

Raab: “I think we’ve made steady progress right the way through, I didn’t read too much into the leaking of what happened, I think we make steady progress when we explain our position in sober terms.”

ConHome: “On the Protocol, you can’t rule out having to implement Article 16. If we do, we would need presumably to protect ourselves from the effects of Article 16 in domestic law and pass a Bill to that effect, would we not?”

Raab: “Look I’m not going to speculate on the decision or the things that would need to accompany the decision. The over-riding message we get across is we want a pragmatic, flexible approach from the EU, and if we don’t get it we’ll do whatever it takes to protect the economic and the constitutional integrity of the Union.

“Ideally, the ball is in the EU’s court, David Frost has sent a range of proposals over.

“What we just cannot have is a situation where Northern Ireland is receiving three times the volume of checks that you see in Rotterdam, double the number of checks that you see in France, to police the EU single market. That cannot be right.”

ConHome: “Did Martin Selmayr say that “losing Northern Ireland was the price the UK would pay for Brexit?”

Raab: “So as I said at the time, when I was asked about this, when I was Brexit Secretary I would get, not from political hacks or spin doctors, I would get constantly fed back to me that there was a political dimension to this.

“And so from officials I had fed back to me that Selmayr had made this point.

“All the officials fed back that for the EU this is existential, and therefore they’re going to want to deter leaving the EU.

“My relationship with Michel Barnier was perfectly cordial and constructive, I respect the guy, but I remember him losing his temper with me when I said we ought to be trying to forge something that is win-win.

“And I think there is a mindset in the Commission, and probably in some other parts of the EU, but I still think it was a fairly narrow mindset, but it was a controlling one, that there was no win-win to be found.

“I look at the thing, my father was Czech, I feel a very strong sense of European identity, we’re not leaving Europe, we’re leaving the EU, let’s try and forge win-win.

“As people might say after the divorce, you can understand why one side of it or the other don’t feel that way. But I still think that’s what we should be aiming for. And that’s our foreign policy. That’s what the Prime Minister believes.”

ConHome: “Do you believe this ethos of punishment is still there in relation to the Protocol?”

Raab: “I don’t want to impute bad intentions, but put it this way, what I do deal with are the facts, and the facts do not justify the fact that one in five controls or checks for the whole of the EU’s external border are now taking place in Northern Ireland.

“That just cannot be right. And that’s not born of protecting the equities of the single market, so there must be some more to it.

“I go and look at borders all around the world. Frankly the approach that Brussels seems to be wedded to is pretty analogue in a digital age.”