Global Britain and the International Rules-based Order

Part of Brexit, Science and Innovation – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster 4:11 pm, 6th September 2018

I agree with my hon. Friend. I welcome the cross-departmental work that FCO and DFID Ministers are already doing in trying to move us towards that approach, although I would like that work to develop through the further integration of aid with our military, diplomatic and trade commitments, and I would like the FCO to be given the premier leadership role in that regard.

In withdrawing from the political, legal and diplomatic structures of the EU, we will, by definition, need to construct an entirely new approach to our global relationships. I would be keen to hear from the Minister what work is being done to set out a framework for engagement with European allies in future.

Party-to-party engagement can be vital in building political relationships that later bear fruit—something in which appointed civil servants inevitably face a level of restriction. Each major party already engages with counterparts in its European Parliament political grouping, and we have the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and bodies such as the International Democrat Union for broader international party engagement, but going forward, we will need to think much more carefully about how we use these bodies to our advantage.

Our German counterparts, particularly in the CDU, have been very wise in using the Stiftung model to advance their nation’s political and economic interests. Is there a post-Brexit case for a strong equivalent body here to ensure that key political relationships are kept warm whether a party is in government or in opposition? Too often, those relationships die when a particular politician moves on, and we need some kind of sustained involvement in those relationships.

In the face of rising popular discontent, the challenge for all nations will be how to reshape global institutions to reflect new realities and refresh their legitimacy in the eyes of the people we are elected to serve. The UK has a unique opportunity to be ahead of the curve on this and to help move the world towards global standards in trade and technology that would benefit British businesses and safeguard the interests of our citizens in the face of rapid, unpredictable technological advances. That will be much easier to do if we are able to define our future relationship with the EU in a way that leaves room for a truly independent trade policy.

That is not to suggest that free trade agreements are a panacea, and we should certainly avoid entering into substandard deals out of political imperative. However, free trade agreements can act as catalysts through which broader diplomatic and trade objectives can be fulfilled, making them particularly relevant to our global Britain ambition. Indeed, other nations have been aggressively using their own trade policies to advance broader economic and security interests.

The UK has not presided over its own independent trade policy for 40 years, and while urgency must be injected into the development of stronger trading links with the likes of America, India and China, negotiations will be complex and will require careful consideration of potential trade-offs. The Government therefore rightly see Australia and New Zealand as a good place to start. Neither economy is especially large, but both have valuable experience from which we can learn. New Zealand was the first country to strike an FTA with China, and each antipodean nation has suggested smarter ways in which we might work together—for example, in fulfilling the demands of the burgeoning far eastern middle classes for the safe, high-quality agricultural produce they sometimes find it difficult to source in the own countries. New Zealand and Australia are also looking to deepen their strategic alliances as Chinese power in the south Pacific grows.

Strong relationships on that front could also give fresh impetus to Australia and Singapore’s pioneering work at the World Trade Organisation on e-commerce and the dismantling of barriers to digital trade, allowing us to play a more active role in the development of global standards for the kinds of services that now account for nearly 80% of our economy. That could deliver tangible economic benefits to our own citizens.

We can also use the development of our independent trade policy to deepen ties with other natural allies, such as the US, working together to cement norms on financial and professional services regulation and strengthening our military and defence co-operation. The US and UK have already set up a working group to discuss stronger trading ties post Brexit, and the Department for International Trade and the FCO are investing more in personnel across the US, but to maximise opportunities for UK businesses we shall need much deeper engagement at state level. In that regard, I fear we are moving towards greater use of temporary contracts and less attractive salary packets, making it difficult to attract in-country staff of the right quality and with the right contacts. I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on the Government’s approach to recruitment and on whether we are attracting the right candidates.

I would also like to echo some of the things my hon. Friend Mr Seely said about the importance of the BBC. Looking at it on an anecdotal basis, I have tried on recent trips abroad to source BBC material on the television and the internet, but it has been very difficult, whereas other countries, such as Russia and China, are stepping up their soft power messaging via their media outlets.

Much of the work we do internationally over the coming years will relate to how China emerges on to the world stage, and we must give urgent priority to developing our approach to that nation’s increasing economic, diplomatic and military ambition. The sheer scale of its population, and its growing wealth, means that nations across the globe will very quickly be faced with questions over the extent to which that wealth and influence should be embraced, managed or indeed actively resisted.

When I was in Kenya over the summer, I was struck by the colossal scale of Chinese investment in east African ports and roads. Trade facilitation measures are welcome, but the debt arrangements for those investments are causing some concern in the region and elsewhere. There will be much more to say on that issue in the coming months, but I sense an increased appetite in such regions for alternative sources of investment that come with greater legal certainty. Here, the UK can carve a niche as countries look to diversify away from that approach, which has been presented as “no strings” but is actually beginning to reveal some conditionality. I would appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on how the FCO is approaching the belt and road initiative and on the experience he has had in the countries with which he has influence.

Charting our new global path beyond the EU will not be easy, and there is no room for complacency, nostalgia or timidity. However, those who believe the UK to be an irrelevance on the international stage are wrong. If we get our strategy right, Britain can be at the very forefront of shaping the governance of new technologies and upholding the values that will change people’s lives in the 21st century.