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 7:54 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Meyer Baroness Meyer Conservative 7:54 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the committee for this excellent report. At a time of great uncertainty in global affairs, it is essential to examine rigorously where the national interest lies and how to safeguard it. The report is an outstanding contribution.

Our role in the world is about not only the detail of policy but the spirit in which it is carried forward. I hope that all Members of this House, whether leavers or remainers, can agree that, in foreign affairs, we should see Brexit as an opportunity, not a damage limitation exercise, and we should bring to the enterprise a spirit that is both optimistic and aggressive—in the best American sense of the word. We should also learn from the French, who are not shy about waving their flag or showing patriotism.

The other day, somebody said to me that our coming last in the Eurovision Song Contest was the result of Brexit. I replied that if you want a metaphor for our future role in Europe, take football. The European Championship and the Europa Cup have been dominated by teams from London and Liverpool. For the first time ever, and despite Brexit, all four finalists are English: passionately supported by British fans and managed, sometimes even owned, by foreigners, with multinational teams. That is my kind of Europe.

On the report, I invite my noble friend the Minister to respond on three points. First, the report urges that, after our withdrawal from the EU, we should put more resources into our relations with its member states. That is obvious common sense. However, as was stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who is not her place, we need to include a stronger concentration on the learning of foreign languages—both European and others, such as Russian and Chinese. We have to develop a cadre of diplomats who can negotiate and do business in the local language. You may say, “Ah yes, but in most of these countries, anybody who matters speaks English”. Even where that is the case, if you speak the language, it is much easier to win your point, build useful relationships and understand what makes the country and its people tick. I speak from experience as someone who has lived in France and Germany and who speaks several languages. I know how different it is to go to Russia and speak Russian: you have a different relationship with people.

My second point relates to the Marshall scholarship scheme, mentioned in paragraph 38 of the report. The scheme finances around 40 of the best and brightest American students studying for a year at one of our universities. As noble Lords know, the scholarships were created after World War II to thank the United States for the generosity of the Marshall plan. For more than 60 years, the upper reaches of American government, law, business and the academy have been occupied by Marshall scholars. The scheme is very dear to my heart: for five years, every September, I and my husband hosted a reception at the Washington embassy to bid farewell to the latest group of Marshall scholars, bright-eyed with optimism and enthusiasm at the adventure they would experience.

I am delighted that the report says that we should increase our support for the Marshall scholars—of course we should. It is a seed corn investment in our most important bilateral relationship. The cost, in the grand scheme of things, is tiny. I very much hope that, perhaps during the visit of the President of the United States, we can announce that we would like to double the number of such students who come to this country every year to 100.

Finally, the report brings out well the complexities of dealing with the US under President Trump. It is unclear whether some of the features of his presidency are specific to him or are of a long-term nature. Either way, it would be prudent for the FCO to devote greater attention and resources to the development of a cadre of American specialists similar to the way in which we prepare diplomats for postings to any other big foreign power. For all the ties that bind us, the US is a foreign country that is likely to become more foreign in the years to come.

I very much hope that the Government will look favourably on these three points, as well as on the report in general. What I am proposing is not expensive—it does not require us, in that notorious phrase, to “punch above our weight”. With all the reserves of hard and soft power at our disposal, it just requires us to punch at our weight and to play to our strengths.