UK champions own diplomacy over EU 'action service'
British foreign minister William Hague has in a landmark speech depicted the UK as a "global power" alongside a diminutive European Union useful chiefly in economic terms.
Citing a former leader from a period of British ascendancy, he told VIPs at a dinner in London on Wednesday (4 May): "In 1805 my political hero William Pitt addressed the Lord Mayor's banquet, two days after news had reached London of Nelson's victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar ... [He said] 'Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example'."
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Placing the US first in a list of UK strategic priorities, the EU second, Brazil third and Turkey fourth, he emphasised British bilateral relations over its co-operation with the 27-member European bloc.
"I have never believed that the EU could or should act as if it were a nation state with a national foreign policy. Any attempt by EU institutions to do so would end in embarrassing failure," he said. "Over the last year we have placed a renewed emphasis on bilateral relations, alongside Britain's role in multilateral institutions."
The speech reflects traditional Conservative Party policy and Britain's eurosceptic culture. But it comes at a testing time for the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, a member of the Tories' rival Labour Party.
Ashton has over the past year tried to forge a single EU foreign policy on divisive issues such as the Middle East peace process and the Arab spring. But the UK and France have taken the lead on big ticket items, leaving her to play catch-up.
In a bad day for the EU's high representative, Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere also on Wednesday told Belgian daily Le Soir that Ashton has left a vacuum at the centre of EU policy-making.
"If there is silence and this silence is 'occupied' by France, Germany etc., Belgium will search for partners in other countries [instead of the EU]," he said.
Hague framed his London speech in grandiloquent terms of "historic" events in the Arab world.
"The eruption of democracy movements across the Middle East and north Africa is, even in its early stages, the most important development of the early 21st century, with potential long term consequences greater than either 9/11 or the global financial crisis in 2008," he noted.
Following the Franco-British-led military strikes on Libya, he said the EU's role will be to help build open markets in the region, pointing to the European Commission's economic and trade portfolios rather than Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS).
"The EU should offer [Arab spring countries] broad and deep economic integration, leading to a free-trade area and eventually a customs union, progressively covering goods, agriculture and services, as well as the improvement of conditions for investment."
With Ashton battling to get EU countries to agree a 5 percent budget increase for the EEAS next year, Hague said he will invest in British diplomacy instead.
"We have increased the number of ministers in the Foreign Office ... Next week, I will set out in parliament our plans to strengthen Britain's global diplomatic network, including the opening of some new embassies and the building up of our diplomatic presence in the emerging economies."