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4th Apr 2020

UK asserts right to 'independent foreign policy'

British leader David Cameron has said he might send arms to rebels in Syria whether fellow EU countries like it or not.

Speaking to the House of Commons liaison committee on Tuesday (12 March), he said: "I would like to continue with an EU approach … But if we cannot, it is not out of the question. We might have to do things in our own way."

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  • EU countries imposed the embargo in May 2011 (Photo: number10.gov.uk)

He noted: "We are still an independent country. We can have an independent foreign policy. If, for instance, we felt that action needed to be taken to help bring about change in Syria to help end this appalling bloodshed, and if we felt that our European partners were holding that back, we would have to change the approach."

He added: "I hope that we do not have to break from a collaborative approach across the European Union. I was just making the point that, if we thought it was the right thing to do, we would do it."

His comments came in reply to MPs' questions on how to handle the EU arms ban on Syria.

EU countries imposed the embargo in May 2011.

It prohibits "the sale, supply, transfer or export of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment and spare parts for the aforementioned."

They recently renewed it until May, but tweaked it to allow exports of "non-lethal" equipment, such as armoured vehicles.

Under EU rules, if there is no consensus to renew it again, the embargo will lapse.

Cameron noted that the UK already planned to veto the EU ban in February if it did not get its own way on the non-lethal amendment.

He said it drafted laws for a UK-only ban on lethal equipment in the event of EU disagreement.

"We drew up that legislation - it was ready to go if we could not get agreement across Europe - because it would have been irresponsible to see the sanctions package fall, but for Britain not to put in place its own sanctions regime; otherwise, members of the regime would have been able to access money, finance and who knows what, so that was just responsible planning," he explained.

EU foreign policy works on the basis of consensus so that small countries do not get railroaded by big ones on matters of important national interest.

France agrees with Britain on Syria. But the disagreement pits them against another large EU country, Germany, which says that arming rebels would make the conflict worse.

Cameron's statement on an "independent foreign policy" also comes in the context of Britains' broader movement away from EU and European structures.

His government aims to pull out of EU-level crime-fighting measures and to hold a referendum on EU membership. It has also said it might quit the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister's remarks underline the difficulties faced by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in trying to get the Union to speak with one voice.

But Ashton's spokesman on Wednesday played down the significance of the dispute.

"The 27 [EU member states] just took the decision to extend sanctions for three months … We will continue to work with the 27 and will look at the issue again when it comes to the next review," he told EUobserver.

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