Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Engaging constructively with the EUís new foreign policy role under Lisbon

Conservative Home - November 10th 2009

Whether we like it or not, the Lisbon treaty will soon become law. David Cameron, having opposed the treaty vigorously, has rightly said that as Prime Minister he will not be able to unpick a treaty that has already been adopted by all the member states of the European Union and is the established legal order of the EU institutions.

What follows from that logically is that Britain now Ė and under a future Conservative government committed to EU membership Ė should seek to use the new post-Lisbon architecture of the EU to shape the Unionís policy in our national interest as much as possible. The challenges facing the EU are too important for the Conservative Partyís own internal debates over Europe to allow us to be sidetracked. If we fail to come to terms now with the cold reality of the treatyís adoption, we will simply see Britainís influence diminish within the EU.

One of the Lisbon treatyís main aims is to boost the EUís standing as a diplomatic heavyweight on the world stage. To do this the treaty strengthens the existing role of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and creates a novel and well-resourced European External Action Service to help coordinate and project the EUís common foreign policy objectives abroad.

Hardline eurosceptics dislike the idea of the EU having its own foreign policy apparatus at all. But the reality is that the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) has existed for the best part of two decades since it was inaugurated by EU leaders including John Major as part of the Maastricht treaty in 1993. Furthermore, itís important to emphasise that even under the Lisbon treaty the CFSP will remain subject to unanimity in the Council of Ministers. In other words, Britain (or any of its EU partners) can still apply a veto and pursue a separate line if we so wish, though this is increasingly a rarity in practice. When we did so the last time over Iraq it turned out with the benefit of hindsight not to have been such a clear-cut decision as those of us who supported the war thought at the time.

So in reality, foreign policy under Lisbon will ultimately always remain the preserve of EU member statesí governments, though mainly they will be acting collectively in the Council and delivering their common position through the High Representative.

All the more reason, therefore, for a future Conservative government to engage with its EU partners to help shape foreign policy in a way that best suits the UK. Shying away from the new institutional framework on the basis that we previously opposed it will do us little good or serve the national interest in the long run. Itís also worth reiterating that our foreign policy objectives Ė given that we are a liberal parliamentary democracy Ė almost invariably closely aligned to those of our 26 EU partners and usually the United States too, not to mention other leading democracies from Japan to Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, its government often formally adheres to the CFSP common position despite the fact that Ukraine is not even an EU member state.

By adding Britainís voice to the voices of others we can potentially achieve much more within the framework of the CFSP than outside it by remaining constructively engaged. We cannot hope to keep Russiaís revanchist and irredentist tendencies in check without a common EU strategy. We cannot expect to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb by engaging Tehran unilaterally. Equally, we cannot possibly deal with climate change or its likely consequences on foreign and security policy without acting in concert with the EU. This was brought home to me recently by an encounter in Brussels with a rear-admiral from the MOD whose job it is to analyse and prevent the likely long-term security and defence threats to the UK expected as a result of runaway climate change. He had come over to Brussels to present Britainís case before EU the institutions.

In recent months William Hague has put more flesh on the bones of Conservative foreign policy. William is traditionally viewed as a eurosceptic but he wisely acknowledged last weekend that a Conservative government would not pick a fight with the EU over the repatriation of powers for some time and our main focus will be employment and justice and home affairs matters. I hope this engaged realpolitik approach will also apply to foreign policy, and that a future Conservative government will come to see the EU foreign policy apparatus not as a threat that undermines our national interest or sovereignty but as an opportunity that helps us achieve our own foreign policy objectives. We can help formulate a common position among the 27 member states when it really suits our interests while retaining our sovereign veto. The Foreign Office, though sometimes misguided in its approach, is nevertheless a class act and recognized as such by the EU; it will inevitably be providing a significant contribution of human resources to the European External Action Service.

Britain has usually gained most from the EU when it has adopted a realistic and hard-headed (and not churlish) approach to our national interest. We need such an approach more than ever under a Conservative government. We know from experience that the other major EU powers Ė France, Germany and Italy Ė respect strength and conviction and often look to Britain for leadership in foreign policy questions, particularly in the Anglosphere and with regards to countries where we have legacy interests. David Cameron undoubtedly projects such leadership characteristics as a soon-to-be Prime Minister. Hopefully he will secure an impressive mandate after the next election to become a leader not only of our country and our party but of the EU as well. It would be deeply regrettable if our own introspection as a party regarding our relationship with Europe ties his hands, because it would only be to our countryís ultimate detriment.

Finally, I was intrigued last week after temporarily chairing the European Parliamentís NATO delegation meeting to be approached by a young Briton heading up a new unit in the Council of Ministers secretariat, accountable directly to the High Representative, and tasked with liaising with the European Parliament. I took this as a signal that the Parliamentís scrutiny role in foreign affairs will be increased under Lisbon. I was aware of our ability to monitor the External Action Service because MEPs have control over its budget. But until this week I was not sure if the foreign affairs committee of the Parliament would hold a confirmation hearing with the new candidate for the High Representative post (who will also be a vice-president of the European Commission, and therefore can be removed from office by the Parliament). We now know that there will indeed be such a hearing, though bizarrely it will be held on a Friday when most MEPs are back in their constituencies. Perhaps the powers-that-be are hoping it will be an anodyne affair! So if any intelligent ConHome posters can come up with some really challenging questions to ask the new EU High Representative candidate I am open to suggestions.