Counterpoint: Blame UK politics not diplomats for EU mess

A former ambassador says it's wrong to blame the FCO for Britain's EU problems. The real blame lies with politicians who can't make up their mind

Where does the FCO fit into the picture?
Charles Crawford
On 3 August 2013 10:55

Here’s a question. Are British diplomats out to do down their own country?

The case for the Prosecution includes Tom Gallagher who builds an interesting conspiracy theory around the stolid conclusions of a Ditchley Foundation conference about Scotland’s independence bid:

But why should anyone be surprised at a UK mandarin minimizing the problems arising from the balkanization of Britain? Britain is an obsolete concept for numerous diplomats who have risen high primarily by advocating a utopian pan-European order.

Then we see John Redwood lecturing the Foreign Office for not listening enough to Conservative Party policies:

The Foreign Office also seem to have ignored the Prime Minister’s own Bloomberg speech, which made clear it is now government policy to negotiate a new relationship with the rest of the EU. Surely one would only do that if you (sic) had already agreed that the current relationship is not working.

A Commentator editorial sums up:

The British Foreign Office (FCO) is out of control … FCO bureaucrats have long been motivated by personal interest (in the jobs they could get in Brussels and the UN, for example) but also by a weak ideological framework that is intense in its hatred of the West, of Britain and of global democratic values …

Foreign Office mandarins (ie. anti-intellectual mediocrities who have learned to play the internal political game; knighthoods etc) are greenlighting Scottish independence from the UK. Their thinking is that if they can destroy Britain, England will feel impelled to join up full time to the EU project.

The Defence makes its case:

Back in the 1975 referendum Margaret Thatcher wore a jumper covered in European flags to help persuade the UK public by a resounding majority that the UK should stay in the European Union. Since then no single political party represented in Parliament -- including John Redwood’s Conservatives -- has advocated leaving the European Union.

On the contrary, down the years we have seen successive governments including the Conservatives vote to expand European Union competences and powers. Tony Blair won three elections in a row campaigning on ‘more Europe’ principles, under national voting rules the Conservative party has campaigned to keep.

In 2010, the Conservatives ran against Gordon Brown on a ‘rather less Europe’ ticket, but ended up in a tragic, annoying coalition with the Lib Dems, the UK’s most ‘more Europe’ serious party.

Down the years in these consistent rather-more-Europe circumstances British officials have been drawn deeper and deeper into European processes to implement the policies agreed by Ministers and endorsed by Parliament. Where Ministers have ordered them to block, they have blocked. Where Ministers have been ready to cut deals, they have cut deals.

Working deeply on EU issues has different effects on different people. Some end up hating the European Union with a passion. Some British diplomats really like the European Union or even see it as an end in itself.

They may indeed instinctively lean towards steering Ministers into less confrontational waters (although often they have a point: “If we insist on X today, we’re going to lose on Y and maybe Z too next month. Is that what you want?”)

Most shrug and do pretty well what they are paid to do: manipulate the interminable haggling and try to get the best outcome for the UK as defined by the government of the day.

See eg the brilliant work done by Robin Renwick and his team to support Margaret Thatcher in winning the British Rebate, the glorious gift that keeps on giving. And the success of waves of diplomats in achieving a key shared Conservative and Labour (ie British) strategic policy goal, enlarging the European Union and the European pro-market space after the Cold War.

It’s fair to say that if it ever comes to a referendum on the UK’s EU membership, the ‘Stay In’ side will muster a good number of former British ambassadors to make eloquent arguments for not leaving.

The one plausible argument that makes Conservative ministers break into a cold sweat is the fear that if the UK leaves the Union, the UK will no longer be the country favoured by insanely rich Asian/Arab investors for establishing a strong European foothold.

But the ‘Let’s Get Out’ side will also have a good share of former ambassadors arguing for a radical, bolder policy, deploying persuasive horror stories about the EU’s declining democratic legitimacy and the wastefulness of EU processes. The public will decide.

John Redwood’s moan that the FCO is not listening to Conservative policy? The FCO has loyally implemented the ‘Review of Competences’ invented by the Coalition to find areas of EU policy that might (they say) sensibly be ‘repatriated’ as part of an eventual ‘Less Europe’ negotiation.

It always struck me that this exercise would waste time and lead to perverse results, and this is exactly what has happened. If Mr Redwood does not like the outcome of his own Party’s machinations, UKIP is waving to him to join them.

The hard fact of it is that the Conservative Party can’t work out whether it believes the UK should leave the European Union or not, nor can it identify a way to persuade other EU partners to allow the UK to negotiate a UK-specific semi-detached status. Result?

A stupid mess, brought about not by ‘out of control’ diplomats but by John Redwood’s own Party’s ‘try-to-have-our-gateau-and-eat-it’ equivocation. The UK’s negotiation weight edges down. Why should anyone strike strategic deals with us if we look to be heading for the exit or can’t make our minds up?

As for Scotland, no-one argues that a referendum on Scottish independence is per se illegitimate. The opposite is the case: this sets the planet an example as a model democratic way to tackle such sensitive issues.

But if (as I myself hope will not be the case) the result of such a referendum is a majority for independence, sensible people on both sides of the argument need to manage the ensuing process in a way that does least damage to all concerned. That Ditchley event was a normal civilised part of making that happen.

Judgement is delivered:

British diplomats are paid to implement government policies. If you don’t like the outcome, don’t rail against the diplomats. Change the policy.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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