William Wallace: Peace and security in Europe still vital

PEACE and stability is one of those issues that was hardly raised in the referendum campaign.

Theresa Mat at her first EU summit, but what will be the consequences of Brexit?
Theresa Mat at her first EU summit, but what will be the consequences of Brexit?

It was an issue that the previous Prime Minister was determined to keep out of the campaign, in spite of efforts by many of us to bring it into the argument, and despite evidence that voters, when asked, responded positively to the reminder.

Since June 24, the Prime Minister and other Ministers have said that, in leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe and that we shall continue to play our full part in European foreign policy and external and internal security co-operation. The question to the Government is when will they tell us how on earth they intend to manage to play our full part when we leave the structures of co-operation?

In the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government, Conservative ministers were enthusiasts for foreign policy co-operation. I remember the London report that the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, commissioned from 1980 to 1981 to investigate how to strengthen foreign policy co-operation. Those of us who have read Mrs Thatcher’s Bruges speech carefully will remember that that also touched on the need for wider European security, speaking of Prague, Warsaw and Budapest as “great European cities”.

When the Cold War ended, the UK was in the lead on enlargement and in assisting the transformation of east European countries towards democracy and stability and in providing training for their police and border forces and armed forces, as we learnt that the disappearance of the Iron Curtain meant that co-operation on internal security and borders had become essential. The UK led in establishing Europol, and Europol has a number of very good British staff and a British secretary-general.

In his first years as Prime Minister, Tony Blair supported closer Franco-British defence co-operation through the 1988 agreement to strengthen and lead closer European defence co-operation and to encourage others – the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians and others — to follow.

However, the Daily Mail campaign against what it dubbed “the European Army” led him to back off, because he always hated standing up to the Daily Mail. Since then, what we have had is a widening gap between the realities of developing co-operation on peace and security and the unwillingness of Ministers, both Labour and Conservative, to admit to the right-wing press or to the House of Commons how far we have been usefully engaged, in our own national interest, in shared European interests.

In 2010, the French took the initiative to strengthen bilateral defence co-operation further. Liam Fox, the then Secretary of State for Defence, followed the policy but did his best to suppress public awareness of joint operations and manoeuvres as far as possible. I am told that his first briefing by the official who managed Franco-British co-operation led to the Secretary of State saying: “Ah yes, but I shall want to talk about this as little as possible.”

I am told that the memorandum to David Cameron on the commemoration of the First World War that sparked off a committee on which I still sit included the phrase “and we must ensure that commemoration does not lend support to the myth that European integration arose out of the conflicts of World Wars One and Two”. That is not a myth; it is very much part of why, after the war, we ended up trying to develop European co-operation.

The referendum campaign was thus fought on the basis that this was an argument about economics and sovereignty, unconnected with peace or security. One has to say that Liam Fox and others were European security co-operation deniers in that campaign. Yet the experience of two world wars had been that Britain ​cannot stand aside when the continent faces disorder.

I was listening to a senior Nato official who spelt out clearly that, in an era of hybrid warfare, cyberattacks, surges of refugees and migrants and economic and financial sanctions as means of political pressure short of war, the EU is now as central to western security as Nato, and the EU is the essential partner of Nato in meeting these threats and challenges.

Without having an answer to how we manage continuing co-operation in foreign policy, defence policy and internal security, we shall have no credible foreign policy. Perhaps it is appropriate that we still have no credible Foreign Secretary to push such a policy.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem peer who spoke in a House of Lords debate on Brexit. This is the full text.