By Mike Gapes (*) For the future security and stability of our country, our continent and the world this is the worst possible moment for the UK to be leaving the European Union. Unfortunately, we are planning to leave our European partners at a time when there is going to be less and less agreement amongst the most important countries about how to deal with current and emerging global problems.
The global order established in 1945 by a small group of countries including the UK is under challenge as the economic power centres of the world move to countries in Asia with growing populations, economies and political impact, not just India and China but also Indonesia and elsewhere.
The election of an impetuous, unilateralist President has brought great unpredictability about where the USA is and where the USA will be. Is Trump an aberration or does he actually represent a long term change in America’s approach? The 19 against one split on the G20 communiqué on climate change may be the first of many disagreements. Yet, the United States is by far the largest military power in the world. 75% of the expenditure of NATO is USA defence spending. All of the other 28 member states added together are just a quarter.
The USA is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with a veto which it uses. It also clearly has a global reach through its soft power ideologically and Trump’s approach will embolden demagogues elsewhere like President Duterte in the Philippines, who has referred to Oxford University as “a school for stupid people”. It will also embolden Erdoğan in Turkey, and Putin in Russia.
Former Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned that leaving the EU would mean a loss of global power and influence for the United Kingdom. There was a vote in the United Nations General Assembly recently on a resolution brought by Mauritius about the Chagos Islands and the British Indian Ocean Territory where the UK lost badly. Large numbers of normally supportive European Union countries did not vote with the UK. Similar problems could arise surrounding other Overseas Territories like the Falkland Islands and of course Gibraltar once there is no UK voice within the EU.
Labour must fight hard to press the government to defend the global internationalist system that was established with the universal declaration of human rights. It must hold countries to high standards of equality and liberty and freedom of expression. It must work with our partners not just in Europe but also through NATO, but also use our soft power influence.
That includes our role in the Commonwealth, but the role of that consensus based body is greatly exaggerated by the nostalgic imperial preference right. Much more important are our universities, and the English language but the Tory government approach is damaging both. University cooperation in Europe, joint projects and our soft power are being weakened by Brexit even before we leave.
So could defence cooperation. When we leave the EU we leave the European Defence Agency, and a range of other agreements and institutions that are linked into being members of the EU.
The essence of British foreign policy for centuries has been that if there is instability or war in Europe we cannot opt-out. Our security is dependent on the security in the land mass we are next to. And especially today when you have an authoritarian aggressive regime in Russia which is prepared to break international law, and invade a neighbouring country and annex its territory then clearly we need to reaffirm that.
NATO is the most important component of military security for us and it will remain so whether or not we are in the EU. But the European Union has increasingly been developing a defence and security component which is extremely important for us too, as are the policing issues - Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. If we leave the EU, there is a real danger that we damage the existing cooperation with France, when in fact we should be building on existing agreements and co-operation. We should also work with France to get the Germans to do more in European security.
We should work very hard to strengthen the common foreign and security policy, for the UK to remain within or associated with it, to build on the bilateral agreements with France, and to work collectively for stronger European defence co-operation, as the United States becomes more and more unilateralist. In defence and foreign and security policy, we need more Europe not less.
(*) Mike Gapes is the Labour MP for Ilford South and a former Chair and current member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.