Pretending to ignore European Union after Brexit ‘like a bad smell’ is ridiculous – Nick Baines

I WELCOMED the Government’s integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy as a necessary attempt to hold together the diverse interests, challenges and opportunities facing the UK in the immediate future.

How should Boris johnson be shaping post-Brexit foreign policy?
How should Boris johnson be shaping post-Brexit foreign policy?

In my early career as a linguist at GCHQ, I learned that words and assumptions need to be interrogated, as they can be used to obscure reality.

For example, in our context, an increased cap on nuclear weapons tells us nothing about numbers that might actually be intended or the rationale for them.

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I think it was remarkable that reference to the European Union was almost completely missing in the review.

Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds who spoke in a Hosue of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech and defence.

This had been widely predicted as it seems that, for the Government, any such reference might be heard as an ideological Remainer capitulation, yet the rationale for a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific makes sense only to a point: it is not just what we are tilting towards that matters, as what we are tilting away from has to be considered.

Put the fractious and loaded politics of Brexit to one side for a moment; we are still going to need a strong common alliance with our European neighbours if, for example, China and Russia are to be rightly understood and handled by the democratic West.

Pretending that we can simply ignore the EU like a bad smell is ridiculous, and this ideological tilting at windmills needs to be challenged.

To argue that we will engage with the EU by way of its member states – the review singles out three, Germany, France and Ireland – is to impose our understanding of how we think our European allies should organise themselves politically, rather than to engage with them on their own terms.

(Left to right) Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Captain Angus Essenhigh and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace face strong winds as they walk on the flight deck, during a visit aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth ahead of its first operational deployment to the Far East.

In so doing, we overlook the point that the EU is more than the sum of its parts and has agency in and of itself. To ignore this agency is to shrink the diplomatic networks that the Government have access to in support of their stated diplomatic objectives.

However, as cuts to the overseas aid budget, and Yemen in particular demonstrate, there is a potentially serious discrepancy between our rhetoric and our observed behaviour.

We assert that we want to be a world leader in upholding the rule of law 
having a number of times threatened 
in the past couple of years to abrogate 
our responsibilities under international law.

We might think we can simply move on, but that does not mean that our damaged reputation and the obvious – to everyone else, that is – gap between our rhetoric and behaviour go unnoticed internally and externally.

It also reduces our credibility when we seek to hold other countries to the rule of law, and that impacts inevitably on global security in the longer term. Ethical assumptions lie at the heart of our political and economic choices. Ethics matter.

I come back to Russia. The Chatham House think-tank published an immensely helpful paper addressing a number of myths and misconceptions about Russia. Basically, it urges a deep questioning of the assumptions that lie behind how we see, understand and strategise in relation to Russia.

As we noted to our cost during the past five years negotiating our exit from the EU, any party to a relationship, especially a changing one, needs to develop an expertise in looking through the eyes of the other party, listening through their ears, hearing their language and interpreting it in order to know where to begin in offering a language of proposition or proposal. Failure to learn the language of the other is both stupid and costly.

The Church has to do this work every day, not least because we have partnerships in parts of the world where the world looks very different and our behaviour is read very differently from our intention or expectation.

My work as a Soviet specialist developed during the Cold War. For my children and grandchildren, it is as remote as the English Civil War, but for most of us here it has shaped our world and the way we see it.

I am not convinced that the integrated review will lead us to a deeper understanding of why Russians see the world the way they do. Building back better demands looking more seriously at the foundations of history. The UK needs to see how we are seen and why.

Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds who spoke in a House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech and defence. This is an edited version.

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