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“If you look at most of the rest of the world, they see Brexit as a sort of small article on page 12 of the newspaper. They’re not spending too much time analysing. I remember a Chinese minister saying to me, ‘we think in terms of centuries and Brexit is going to be a very minor episode when we think about it strategically’.”

The Rt Hon Sir David Lidington KCB CBE is a leading British politician who has served as Member of Parliament, Minister for Europe, Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice, Minister for the Cabinet Office, as well as de facto Deputy Prime Minister. He is also Chair of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE), Chair of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and Trustee of the Institute for Government.

Sir David, you have held many of the most senior positions in British politics and have been in an ideal position to witness developments in international policy, especially in relation to our European allies. Based on your experiences, what do you think could be approached or handled differently in the future, either by the UK or by our European partners, to move towards an increasingly strong cooperation and to deepen relations with Europe as a whole.

There are two key points. The first is that, although it will be difficult given recent history, both sides have to try and put that past behind us. What has happened has happened and at the end of the current year the UK will leave the transitional arrangement, I hope with a deal and further talks in the future.

Geography and history aren’t going to change, nor will the strategic challenges that face all European democracies and so I think the second key point is this. I would like both in London and in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and all other European capitals to see political leaders focus upon strategic objectives.

If I have a criticism, it’s about the way that the negotiations have been handled on both sides. It is that there has been too much of a focus upon the immediate, the very controversial granular details of an exit negotiation, perhaps that was inevitable, and not enough attention paid to the sort of relationship that we want.

If we look at what’s happening in our part of the world our model of government as a liberal pluralist democracy is coming under increasing challenge in different ways, from Putin and from Xi. We are seeing the Kremlin seeking to destabilise eastern Europe and the Balkans and even interfere further west as well.

We’re seeing the United States questioning its 70 years strong role as the guarantor of a rules based global order and of European security. And though I think Biden will be a president who values alliances and international institutions he will also want the Europeans, the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance to exercise greater political leadership and contribute more to security. So we are going to have to think about how we work together.

If you’re going to have a European, in the broader sense of that term, international policy and security policy that makes sense in combatting terrorism, in meeting the challenge of people smuggling from Africa, of organised crime that comes from Africa then through the Western Balkans, perhaps from the Middle East as well, then you’ve got to involve the EU with its suite of tools, but also the assets that individual countries, particularly France can bring to the table and that the United Kingdom can bring to the table.

A European security and defence policy that that doesn’t include both France and the UK isn’t a European security and international policy in anything but name.

It is a perfect opportunity to delve a little further into this topic as you are also the Chair of RUSI, the oldest security and defence think tank in the world. Particularly in light of some of the challenges you mentioned what would be the best ways to approach stronger cooperation in security and defence and could that be a ladder to build onto other areas of cooperation?

Personally I regret the fact that the UK government decided at the start of the exit negotiations when the Johnson government came in that they were not going to talk about foreign policy and security and defence cooperation. I think that’s a pity. I think the UK has so much to contribute and without the UK there’s a massive great hole in the capabilities of the European pillar of the democratic transatlantic alliance so I hope that once we get beyond these difficult negotiations into 2021 that that will change.

Furthermore, on the EU side there needs to be a bit of a shift in thinking. I think that there is too great a temptation, from the Brussels side to say that it looks like it’s so difficult to get to unanimous agreement in the Foreign Affairs Council about an EU position. But actually, what we then have to do is say to allies, ‘well this is what we have decided to do, are you going to join us in doing that, you’re welcome to do so’. I don’t think that will work with the UK because I think the UK will say, ‘hang on we haven’t had any say in drafting this. We disagree with paragraphs eight and nine although we agree strongly with paragraph three and four.’

I think the sensible thing would be institutionalised cooperation. I want to see that between the UK on a bilateral basis with the leading European powers and our neighbours, for example Ireland and France with whom we’re not going to be rubbing shoulders in council meetings anymore, and we need some structures to replace that, but also between the UK and the EU collectively.

If you look at how the Foreign Affairs Council and the External Action Service work, there is a day when for example the Turkish Foreign minister will perhaps meet the Foreign Affairs Council once a year. Well frankly if you meet the Turks once a year, I have hope that we can come to an arrangement where we do a bit better between the UK and the EU.

I don’t see why there shouldn’t be something like quarterly meetings. Some kind of memorandum of understanding between the External Action Service and the UK government on sharing of intelligence information.

Any leading police officer in any European country will tell you that there’s very little serious and organised crime these days that does not have an international dimension. We do need to find a way after the rupture that I fear is likely to happen at the end of this year to strengthen our links on policing and criminal justice cooperation. We know if we look back at the Bataclan murders, the terrorist attacks in Belgium, in Germany and other countries, we know those had a cross border dimension to them. It is in all our interests that we find a way of maintaining access to passenger name records that we find a way of sharing information about potentially very dangerous suspects which our respective authorities may have been able to find knowledge about.

I think it’s important we don’t let doctrines about national independence or sovereignty get in the way of keeping our citizens safe. I don’t think any leader is going to be easily forgiven by their voters if they have to turn up to their Parliament and say, well we would have been able to prevent this terrorist attack but we didn’t have access to this database as our neighbouring country had. It’s in all our interest to get our act together on this so I really hope that becomes a priority.

You mentioned RUSI which I chair and it traditionally focuses very much on international security and defence policy. We’re doing an increasing amount of work on domestic security as well because that and the international dimension are so inextricably linked. If you look at things like cyber security if you look at the sort of hybrid warfare, including information warfare, that Russia has pursued in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, you can’t put international and national domestic security into neat little boxes anymore. They link together and as digital technology picks up and as criminals find even more clever ways to use social media and digital technology, that inter-relationship is only going to strengthen.

It’s with perfect timing for this interview that the CGE has just published a new paper on international relations including international security and defence, entitled “European Britain, Global Britain: Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit” which presents a Conservative perspective on how post-Brexit the UK can deliver government policy in a pragmatic way. What are the key outtakes for you from this paper? What opportunities do you see for the UK to cooperate further with our European partners on security and defence and perhaps in other areas?

The paper as with any CGE paper represents the views of its authors. It’s not a collective statement of policy but its authors have spent a lot of time and energy on putting a very good paper together. I think the examples that I would give are around strengthening security cooperation, especially when it comes to counter terrorism and anti-crime operations.

I also think that there is no contradiction whatever between the idea that the Johnson Government is committed to a Global Britain and a European Britain. Britain is a country which is a European power but it’s also a European power that has a global set of interests and a global outlook and we rely on international trade and investment, so things like freedom of navigation of the seas and the upholding of international treaties are important to us. The carbon reduction agenda is important to us and that’s something that the Johnson government is very strongly committed to, so I think there are opportunities there.

I also like the idea Boris Johnson has espoused of a so called D10, Democracy 10 where you take the G7 Member States and you add in Australia, South Korea and India as additional partners and you start to develop that club as a more effective player in world affairs. I think that would be interesting because of course three EU member states are already part of the G7. My argument to the UK side would be look, accept the reality of how the European Union works, while for national security in article four of the treaties there is a carve out and it’s national action you go to Paris so they are assertive about that. But the reality is that what France, Germany and Italy do and say is going to be influenced by and will influence the common position in the FAC. And there is a context of the European Union acting as a constant conversation on all sorts of different levels in different institutional forms between 27 governments and so just as you have the Presidents of the Commission and the European Council attending G7 meetings, it seems to me to be sensible to find ways of linking in the High Representative and the European Council President and the Commission President too because of the soft power the Commission has at its disposal to this D10 idea.

I think European Britain and Global Britain complement and reinforce each other. They’re not opposites and I think that is going to be important in terms of meeting the challenge of China, in maintaining freedom of navigation, in terms of the cyber questions that we were going to wrestle with and how do you strike the balance between, on the one hand, liberty and free expression, and on the other, the use of the Internet for subversion and the demand from many of our voters to protect privacy – where do you strike the balance. These are difficult and complex conversations, so I think that there is a really important agenda there.

I think the D10 idea also provides a mechanism for saying to Washington that the European allies are both being prepared to step forward more and to contribute something to America’s chief security concern which is the Indo-Pacific region and I think we will find it as a group of European democracies easier to persuade the United States to remain fully committed to the security of Europe if we are showing that we are exercising greater political leadership, perhaps particularly in Africa where I think the Americans will tend to leave to Europe to sort out, and that we are finding a way to contribute something diplomatically, economically and possibly militarily in the Indo-Pacific region as well. And I think the sort of D10 idea and finding a way to link that to the network of European cooperation through the FAC is part of the key to resetting the world at a time when I worry that what we thought of as the West is fraying. It’s becoming more vulnerable and more divided in the face of both technological and economic challenges on the one hand and serious political challenges from Russia and China on the other.

It’s very interesting to see that the USA still considers the UK part of Europe and very much groups us together.

If you look at most of the rest of the world, they see Brexit as a sort of small article on page 12 of the newspaper. They’re not spending too much time analysing. I remember a Chinese minister saying to me, ‘we think in terms of centuries and Brexit is going to be a very minor episode when we think about it strategically’. It will be seen as a bit of a local squabble that most countries in the world will think it’s not their business and they’re not terribly interested. Their judgement will be that it doesn’t affect their interests fundamentally.

If you look strategically the UK is still going to be involved in NATO, in the OSCE, in the Council of Europe, we’re still going to be 20 miles away from the French coast. There is still going to be this massive network of personal, cultural, educational, commercial, investment, financial links between the UK and the EU. The English language is still going to be used as the language of international business, and of course one of the official languages of Ireland, so it will still be an official EU language.

So the idea that either side can talk about a fog in the channel, that Britain or Europe, depending who you’re speaking to, is cut off, is fanciful. We’ll have to find a way to let the wounds heal from the last five years and then if we think about our people first, we need to move on constructively from that.

One way perhaps to increase cooperation is for the UK to be a link between Europe as a whole and other countries that we have particularly close relations with. For example, you mentioned about Australia, India and South Korea joining G7 meetings. So perhaps the UK can help arrange that kind of connection based on the language and based on its strong connections with the USA, the Commonwealth and others.

We could play our part. I’m not a champion of a sort of UK exceptionalism. I don’t want to in any way to downplay the importance of the relationships that France or Italy or Germany or Sweden may have with countries in other parts of the world. But what is true is that the United Kingdom has a huge and very talented diplomatic core. It has one of the biggest bilateral aid and development programs anywhere in the world. It has significant armed forces which we are willing to deploy for humanitarian or security purposes and probably only France has the equivalent capability and willingness to deploy.

We show that for example in the Sahel where despite all the differences over Brexit Boris Johnson committed himself to further British deployments to assist the French-led actions in Chad and Mali. We have in the UK very significant cultural and educational assets. We are part of a network of many different international organisations, NATO, OSCE, Council of Europe, G7, G20, WTO, permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, the Commonwealth, you could go on. One of things I so much regret about Brexit is that the UK is the poorer for leaving but I also think Europe’s the poorer for the UK leaving.

Finding ways in which to work constructively together is clearly in all our interests. I hope that leaders can raise their sights and focus on that strategic picture.

The international organisations you mentioned are so important for strategic cooperation and it’s great that we have those institutional connections. On this note, as EDS is a network of centre-right youth organisations and our purpose is to unite young centre-right politicians, we would love to hear if there is anything that can be done in that direction more widely, perhaps between British Conservatives and centre-right colleagues across Europe?

I very much hope so and I want to play my part in doing that. I learned a huge amount going back 30 years now when I was, first of all a Ministerial Advisor to our former Foreign Secretary Lord Heard and then a Parliamentary candidate and new MP, I benefited hugely from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Hanns Seidel Stiftung providing me with opportunities to visit Germany and then to visit parts of Central Europe in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolutions of 1989/90.

It was an absolutely incredible sense of excitement there. My own politics, my own approach to Europe is very much coloured by that time. When I was a Political Adviser to the Foreign Secretary, we came into the Foreign Office around the end of October, beginning of November 1989, and within a month the Berlin Wall had come down and I was sitting in my office seeing these reports from British ambassadors in Prague and Warsaw and Bucharest and Sofia about what was happening and the sense of absolute amazement and wonder there.

I remember I went to east Berlin as a schoolboy and I saw the wall, I saw the border and to go back to walk through the Brandenburg Gate to just see a city starting to knit itself together was just so wonderful. Literally wonderful in the proper sense, because it was something you didn’t expect was going to happen.

When I was Minister for Europe many years later and I went to somewhere like Tallinn or Riga I was pinching myself because I knew that you know 25 years before I would not have been allowed to go there. These were closed cities to westerners and so my approach to Europe is coloured by that sense of wonder and overwhelming joy at the continent. The shared civilization coming back together in 1989/90. After divisions that had lasted really since 1914 in different forms, as the continent was divided since the First World War. And so I want to hold on to that dream.

So going back to what you said about political parties I want to find a way to continue the Conservative Party’s connections with the mainstream Conservative and Christian Democrat parties around Europe. There are plenty of Conservative MPs still who have friends and contacts in perhaps the two German Christian Democrat parties and the Moderaterna in Sweden in particular, among others.

And I think that we need to encourage those contacts and find ways to develop them. I mean there are the obvious familiar sensitivities on the UK side about the language in the EPP Constitution about federal aspirations for example. But you know with goodwill we can find ways to work around those.

We should also share ideas, we should be talking to each as centre-right political parties not just about Europe and the European question but about many other topics. For example, what measures have you found work best for decarbonisation? How are you striking a balance between raising revenue through taxation and at the same time encouraging enterprise and wealth creation. How are you facing the challenge of an aging society and trying to get inter-generational fairness in the way your society develops. How are you coping with the challenge of digital technology and the shake-up that it is producing for white collar and professional work.

We’re going into a world where artificial intelligence will be able to do the work that junior lawyers and accountants and technical journalists have been doing up till now. It’s going to shake so many assumptions about employment and careers and we should be exchanging views, as parties and politicians with a centre-right perspective about what works best and be honest with each other about what we’ve tried and doesn’t work as well and I think that way we can both have a fruitful relationship and we can actually improve the quality of our own policies by learning about others international experience.

“If you look at most of the rest of the world, they see Brexit as a sort of small article on page 12 of the newspaper. They’re not spending too much time analysing. I remember a Chinese minister saying to me, ‘we think in terms of centuries and Brexit is going to be a very minor episode when we think about it strategically’.”

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Ivan Botoucharov
Ivan has proud Bulgarian roots and has been fortunate to have lived and been educated in Bulgaria, the USA, Italy and, since his teenage years, in the UK. He is currently an Executive in Media, Digital Marketing and Public Relations for a global corporation based in London. He has studied at universities in the UK (UEA and LMU) and the USA (UCLA), and holds a full Chartered status from the Institute of Marketing, granted by authority of The Queen’s Privy Council. During and after his studies Ivan co-founded and led OneEurope, which became Europe’s largest citizens media under his tenure. In the course of his EDS career Ivan has been the Co-Chair of the Policies for Europe working group, a contributor to Bullseye, Vice-Chair responsible for Publications and the head of the UK delegation at Council Meetings since 2017. Ivan is the Chair of the UK organisation in EDS - the Young Conservative Group for Europe. He also serves as an Executive in YCGE’s parent organisation, which enjoys the support of 70 Conservative Members of Parliament and the House of Lords.