My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and to be able to thank him for his three years of service to the International Relations Committee. Clearly, as he has indicated, there will be further opportunities to thank him for his chairmanship.
The International Relations Committee of your Lordships’ House is a new committee which we have had for the last three years. Its first meeting was in May 2016; at that point, the assumption was that it would be a committee alongside the EU Select Committee and all its sub-committees—that we would do the international while the EU Committee was doing the European. After our first meeting, we had the now-fateful referendum. We have spent the last three years in the shadow of Brexit, something that the Prime Minister this afternoon referred to as a having a “corrosive impact” on politics.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the usual channels have ensured that we have a prime slot for debating this important report. It seems at present that almost every slot is available because there is no legislative business of any substance—or so I thought when I was preparing my remarks, but then of course the debate on Kew went on for several hours. So we can clearly legislate despite the shadow of Brexit, but Brexit has overshadowed much of what we have been doing for the last three years.
The decision to have an inquiry into the UK’s role in the world was taken in the knowledge that we had voted to leave the European Union, but the committee was very clear that the report and inquiry were needed regardless of whether the UK leaves the European Union. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, made very clear, it is timely in the sense of a changing world order. The threats of the world have changed fundamentally in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. They have changed far more since the end of the Second World War, yet at no point has the United Kingdom sat back and asked, “How do we see our place in the world?” France did so in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and understood that it was a middle-ranking power albeit one with global aspirations. The United Kingdom has continued to aspire to being a global power, and occasionally thinks it can go global on its own.
The part of our report that I wish to address is the part that considers alliances. It will perhaps not surprise Members of your Lordships’ House that I want to focus in particular on the ongoing relationships that the United Kingdom must inevitably have with the European Union on a bilateral basis. We talk about that in the report. By way of caveat, I point out of course that, as a Liberal Democrat, my party has consistently said that we should not be leaving the European Union. Therefore, my remarks need to be understood in the context that bilateral relations matter whether we are inside or outside the European Union.
For the last 45 years, the UK’s bilateral relations with our European partners have developed and become embedded within the European Union. Our relations at the level of Parliament, political parties, Ministers and officials have all been strengthened through bilateral relations that have become semi-automatic because we are part of the European Union. Those relations happen in a much more organic way than they do within the United Nations, OSCE or even NATO.
All those relationships matter, and the Government’s response to our report made it very clear that they envisage that we will continue to have those relationships once we leave the European Union. However, what will be lacking if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union is that daily interaction—the fact that Ministers and civil servants are talking on a regular basis with their opposite numbers. About a quarter of a century ago, Tony Blair talked about the new bilateralism and wanting to strengthen the United Kingdom’s relations with the European Union. This was in 1997 or 1998, so not quite a quarter of a century ago. He envisaged it as being about strengthening relations between fellow Labour, or socialist, parliamentarians, Ministers and officials.
Clearly, the International Relations Committee would not necessarily be recommending the strengthening of relations between the Conservative Government and socialist parties in Europe, but those relations that have become organic do matter. Relations can and must continue. This is not just something that the Labour Party understood in the late 1990s and the early part of this century. It is something that opposite numbers understand in other countries; for example, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the foundation linked to the German CDU, with which I spent the weekend just gone, understands that and is keen to keep relations going with the United Kingdom.
Your Lordships’ International Relations Committee is not alone in understanding the importance of the bilateral. Just this afternoon, I, like other Members of your Lordships’ House, received an email from Daniel Kawczynski about the APPG for Poland. I do not normally pray Mr Kawczynski in aid—our politics do not normally coincide—but he pointed out the importance of Anglo-Polish relations in the context of Brexit. As a key NATO ally and in a position of influence within the European Union, Poland will become a more important ally for the United Kingdom than she is now and it is imperative that a strong working relationship between our two nations is maintained. That is true not only of Poland but of Germany, France and other like-minded countries which have been key allies within the European Union.
The Government’s response to our report indicates that they see the importance of such relations. They have talked about strengthening the bilateral embassies, but can the Minister go further? Can he commit the Government to an understanding of the importance of bilateral relations, not just in the context of embassy-to-embassy discourse, but of party-to-party, Parliament-to-Parliament and Minister-to-Minister discourse too. While those relationships have mattered within the European Union, they will matter even more if the UK leaves the European Union when we will rely on our partners within Europe for the ongoing security relationship which the Prime Minister and the Government have made so clear they wish to continue in the context of Brexit.