UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Tugendhat Lord Tugendhat Conservative 7:17 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, like others I should like to begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Howell not just on this report but on the whole period of his chairmanship of the International Relations Committee. He has rendered an enormous service to the House, and the continuation of the committee after he steps down will maintain that work well into the future.

The report itself is of course a timely contribution to the foreign policy debate. It comes at a time when the whole direction and basis of British foreign policy needs to be rethought as a result of Brexit, and it also comes at a time when assumptions on international relations across the world are being called into question, not just by President Trump but also by the rise of China and some of the policies that China is pursuing.

The report deals comprehensively with the issues to which these changes give rise, but it provides questions rather than answers to those issues. In so doing, I fear it exposes with alarming clarity the muddle that the United Kingdom has got itself into. That emerges in the summary to the report, with its exhortation to resist United States challenges to the multilateral system and to make defence of the rules-based international order central to our bilateral relations. I agree very strongly with that, and so do many other noble Lords. But how can one reconcile that exhortation with our departure from the most important and highly developed international organisation of which we are at present a member?

Whether or not it is good or damaging for Britain in the long run to leave the European Union is of course a matter of intense domestic debate. But there is one thing on which one has to be absolutely clear. Our decision to leave the European Union is very damaging to the European Union. It means that the European Union is losing its second-largest or third-largest member and it calls into question a number of the policies on which it is based. Some harsh words have been uttered about President Trump, but he has done nothing as damaging to the international rules-based order, or to international organisations, as that. It is something that it behoves us to remember.

Not only that, but on the basis of this report our Foreign Secretary does not seem to have grasped the full consequences of what we are doing. He is quoted as saying that the United Kingdom should be a link between the United States and Europe. I certainly agree with that; it has been our traditional role and something that we have sought to do for a very long time. But you cannot be a link between the United States and Europe if you are weakening your relationships with your principal European partners and if you are weakening the international organisation to which they attach more importance than any other. I am of course delighted to read in the report that the Foreign Secretary wants the strongest possible partnership on foreign and security policy with like-minded European partners. That is absolutely right; we certainly do. But that is not quite the same as being a member of the European Union.

Many of us in the House will remember Ray Seitz, an outstanding ambassador to this country, and will have read his book, Over Here, in which he describes the basis of British influence in Washington. He explains that it is based partly on the defence and intelligence relationship that is discussed in the report and partly on our experience in different parts of the world. He emphasises the extent to which it is because we are a member of the European Union and have been able to influence the way in which the Union developed.

That, I am afraid, is not the only example of an inconsistency between what the report sensibly recommends and the direction of British foreign policy —or at any rate British policy—at present. Among the international organisations that the report mentions is one that it particularly wishes us to uphold: the WTO. That, too, is quite right; the WTO is a very important organisation and we certainly wish to support it, particularly in the light of our departure from the EU. But it is of course also the international organisation to which President Trump has perhaps done more damage than any other by, in effect, neutralising its appellate procedure. To call in aid WTO rules as an alternative to EU rules at precisely the point that the United States is undermining the WTO, as the ERG MPs and some Ministers who favour a no-deal Brexit recommend, beggars belief. I am afraid that it is another example of how the wise words of the report are at variance with what the British Government are doing.

Another is the inconsistency, to which the report rightly draws attention, between the need for the United Kingdom to strengthen its considerable soft-power assets and the Government’s policy on students from abroad. Including them in the immigration target both damages our universities’ ability to compete in the international market and conveys an attitude of hostility to the students and to the countries from which they come. In particular, it has damaged relations with Commonwealth countries, and above all with India. The report rightly attaches importance to the Commonwealth, and the future of the Commonwealth will depend to a great extent on the attitude taken by its largest member.

So I praise the report, and I wish only that the behaviour, policies and direction of the British Government were more in line with its recommendations.