William Hague yesterday made the first of what he intends to be four speeches laying out the foreign policy of the new government. (Read it here.) His speech was as much a criticism of the previous government as it was a setting out of new plans.
Those new plans, for what they are worth, are rather unobjectionable. He wants to work more with emerging economies, he wants to integrate the different aspects of foreign policy better, he wants to reinvigorate the Foreign Office as an institution, and he wants to adhere to moral values.
There are of course substantial differences between the approach outlined in this speech and the famous eurosceptic letter drafted for him by the Foreign Office before the election (which you can read here). Whether that is because the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats will not allow such a hostile attitude to Europe, or whether it is because he really means it, I do not know, but it remains the case that the British government is not as eurosceptic as many people feared it would be.
But that does not mean that it is constructive instead. I will cite three examples.
First, there is the criticism of the previous government for paying too much attention to France and Germany and neglecting some of the smaller countries. This is an age-old British tradition: the very room at the Foreign Office in which William Hague spoke, the Locarno Room, is named after a treaty of 1925 between Britain, France and Germany in which they mutually guaranteed their borders but not those of Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is also hardly fair. At the time of the build-up to the Iraq war, remember that Britain enlisted a number of smaller European countries – “new Europe” – to the cause of invasion, in contrast to the Franco-German opposition to the war. That is the new Hague doctrine. The lesson to be learned from that is that on the big issues, if the major European countries are not in agreement, they will count for nothing.
Furthermore, let us remember that when the last EU budget was agreed, it included the renunciation by Britain of that part of the rebate paid by the new member states of central and eastern Europe. Giving up any part of the rebate was, of course, heavily criticised by the Conservative opposition at the time.
A second criticism voiced by William Hague is that Britain is under-represented among the staff of the European institutions. Again, this cannot really be interpreted as a policy criticism of the previous government so much as a cultural criticism of Britain as a whole. British people have not been interested enough in working for the EU institutions, and time spent there will not seem valuable enough on the CV for potential future employers. To have been associated with European work has been taken as a negative and not a positive. That is not the result of a government decision or policy but is the consequence of a wider eurosceptic climate of opinion in Britain. And who has been responsible for that, William Hague?
And thirdly, there is the question of international institutions. William Hague allows in his speech they should be “strengthened”, but does not say how. It is the view of this website that creating democratic and effective international institutions should be the central aim of foreign policy, not merely a sideline within it. This requires a vision of institutions to be spelled out, not to be relegated to the final paragraph. Coupled with the regular and repeated call for “strengthened bilateral relationships”, this could become alarming. After all, it was a reliance on bilateral relationships, and the assumption that personal and private contacts between political leaders could solve international problems, that ended up giving Locarno a bad name.