The first thing a Foreign Ministry does when a speaking invitation arrives is to use the most sophisticated electronic techniques to check the “About Us” page of the website of those sending it. The website of the Danube Institute tells me this: the Institute provides an independent centre of intellectual debate for conservatives and classical liberals and their democratic opponents in Central Europe. All of which makes me wonder: am I being invited here as a “conservative”, or a “classical liberal”, or one of their “democratic opponents”?

John O’Sullivan’s invitation was generously open-ended: “Speak as you like on foreign policy, the more topical the better. If you wish to sketch out the way forward from the still undetermined Ukraine crisis, that would be perfect. Should you deliver an enthusiastic endorsement of European federalism, we hardened old Eurosceptics will bite our tongues, and applaud with every appearance of compliance.”

Let me take John at his word, talk about foreign policy in general and Europe’s foreign policy in particular, and – just for this evening – tiptoe over towards John’s camp of hardened old Eurosceptics to see what these things look like from that interesting angle.

What does it mean these days to be a mainstream democratic Eurosceptic? People are Eurosceptic for many different reasons. As Tolstoy famously said: “All the happy people who support the EU are alike; each Eurosceptic is unhappy in his own particular way.”

Some Eurosceptics don’t accept the very idea of the EU, or that national sovereignty is subject to law-making powers at the EU level. Others accept the EU in principle, but argue that in practice it all goes too far. They fear “post-democratic” policy-making by unaccountable Brussels elites. They insist that “ever-closer union” through the Eurozone creates dangerous economic – or even moral – contradictions.

“Country-specific” Eurosceptics are another category. They don’t care whether other countries join the European Union. They may welcome it. They may even think that the EU is terrific, a force for good and glory! They just don’t want their own country to be in it!

What do these species and sub-species of “Euroscepticism” have in common? They believe that Europe’s citizens can capture key benefits flowing from the European Union (peace and prosperity and global influence) without something like the EU’s institutional and legal structure.

Now, I don’t want to talk about the economic aspects of the EU’s success on this occasion. It’s as clear as day that huge practical benefits come to all of us from the Single Market and that to make it work we need rules agreed by member states sharing their sovereignty. It is a crucial point that those benefits would not come otherwise.

Instead I want to talk here about the EU’s foreign policy and to prove to you that

Eurosceptics should like what they see.

What actually is a “foreign policy”? Some people say that it’s wrong even to have one. Why don’t States just mind their own business and stop meddling far beyond their borders in things they don’t understand, making a mess in the process? Others reply that all states have no choice but to think about how they protect themselves and advance their interests. That means investing in understanding the rest of the world, and taking action in many different ways: above all, projecting a coherent view of how the world should be run; working hard to persuade others that that view makes sense; using levers of tough power to make things happen.

When the First World War started, far fewer states existed. Europe itself had empires: British, French, German, Russian, Ottoman, and of course the Dual Monarchy, run in good part from this great capital of Budapest. These empires loftily directed the affairs of much of humanity. The elegant boulevards and imposing buildings of those times remain with us in Europe’s cities. They are monuments to a vast history of European power and prestige. Europeans of all political complexions, including most Eurosceptics, believe in European countries taking an active role in world affairs. We do not agree with Candide that we should limit our ambitions to our own garden.

So, having agreed that we do want to have a foreign policy that is more than platitudinous statements, the next question arrives: how to have influence and impact in today’s complicated world?

Look at some examples.

Can any one European country or indeed any country drive forward a credible plan for stabilising Syria and the troubled Middle East region? No.

Can any one European country tackle those swarms of post-modern pirates now plaguing the high seas off Africa? No.

Can any one European country contain terrorist threats from far-flung parts of the world? No.

Can any one European country promote positive change in North Korea, or other countries where human rights are massively abused? No.

Can any one European country make any difference in the Kashmir issue, or elsewhere in Asia where tensions are rising? No.

It’s obvious. Eurosceptics too recognise reality. Europeans need to work together to make a difference anywhere outside Europe. This means pooling our efforts and resources and insights. Hardened Eurosceptics like John O’Sullivan also agree that we need to pool our efforts to manage problems directly affecting Europe, or even problems within Europe. Is it better to talk to the countries of North Africa as a team, or separately? Is it better if we negotiate with Turkey as a team, or separately? Is it better to promote reform and growth across the former Yugoslavia as a team or separately?

The Ukraine case is particularly powerful. Here we have one of Europe’s largest countries, trying to find its place in the world after not decades, but centuries of subjugation. Can France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Poland or Hungary acting alone or coordinating their policies in small groups of countries help Ukraine and its people do that?

No. Only by presenting a firm, united policy both towards Kiev and Moscow do we have any hope of making a difference.

It does not matter if our Eurosceptic friends complain that in fact the EU’s offering to Ukraine has not been firm, or united, or even credible enough. That may even be true. I myself would like to see more done to step up European engagement with Ukraine, as no doubt would most Hungarians and everyone in this room tonight. The situation in Ukraine is beyond deplorable. But imperfect as our policy up to now may have been, its orders of magnitude are more likely to be effective than a fragmented ad hoc dispersed effort, with each EU capital taking its own position.

The Eastern European issues inherited from the collapse of European Communism should remain at the top of Europe’s foreign policy agenda in the coming years.

It’s our shared political and moral responsibility to deploy the diplomatic energy and resources needed to get things right.

Summing up what we, presumed hardened Eurosceptics, have agreed so far. We have agreed two things:

• We want to have foreign policies.
• We need to pool our efforts to make a difference.

This prompts new questions: is the way we now pool our efforts through the EU’s structures and treaties and institutions the best way to get results? If not, what is likely to be more successful? And does not the very fact of the European External Action Service’s existence undermine member states’ foreign policy impact?

Here the numbers speak for themselves. There are roughly 2,000 EEAS officials working in 141 delegations outside the EU’s own area. There are many more member states’ diplomats doing the same in over 5,000 diplomatic missions worldwide. So classical bilateral diplomacy is not dying out. Far from it. The fact that we have both EEAS teams and bilateral diplomats pressing shared European positions throws more weight into what we are doing.

That said, maybe there is just a bit of duplication and wasted money in having so many diplomats from so many EU member states doing much the same things? In New York, there are 24 EU consulates. In Shanghai, we have 21 consulates. That’s a lot of diplomatic office space. Do we really need it all? Let’s work on co-locating where possible to share services and raise our joint profile.

In many Eastern European and Asian missions the consular section – the people dealing with Europeans who get into trouble overseas – is by far the largest section of any representation. European governments already share resources on the ground to help each other in crisis situations, to help evacuate people or deliver emergency help. Is it really so ridiculous to save some money by doing more of that in routine situations too, by transferring some consular services to the EEAS?

Ah, there you have it! Our tough Eurosceptics reply, the EEAS is a cuckoo in the diplomatic nest! It’s going to take on a life of its own and squeeze out bilateral diplomats and national diplomacy!

Fair point! That’s why the EEAS is designed to include a strong proportion of seconded member states’ diplomats in its ranks. Indeed, it does just that. The very composition of the EEAS exemplifies what the European Union’s foreign policy is all about: a clever, flexible combination of EU-level philosophy, i.e., the varied insights that member states’ own diplomats bring. Well, that’s OK, we suppose, the Eurosceptics reply. Still, the EEAS reduces the scope for individual EU member states taking sovereign decisions in their own interests.

To which I say: piffle!

The military intervention in Libya showed the willingness of some EU countries to press ahead and take risks on their own responsibility. Other EU member states decided not to do so. Who was cabin’d, cribb’d and confined there by EU foreign policy? No-one.

European capitals of all shapes and sizes cannot have it both ways. Sometimes tough problems require tough decisions, The problem is that we are not really set up to take them in a smart way. Why not have EU Defence Ministers meeting regularly in their own EU council or bring them in more regularly at FAC meetings?

Another example: Look at how the EU has made a difference in managing Iran. Three EU member states with the biggest clout joined forces to sit round the table with the USA, China and Russia. Catherine Ashton representing the EU as a whole likewise has played an influential personal role in helping broker a deal.

What’s not to like about imaginative teamwork that gives us the best of all worlds – sharp, nimble bilateral diplomacy by three major EU member states, reinforced by the wider weight of the rest of the Union as expressed via the EEAS? All that, backed by the persuasive power of sanctions from the largest economy on earth?

As William Hague put it in October 2011 discussing Syria, EU procedures can be cumbersome, slow and bureaucratic. But when you’ve negotiated them, 95 per cent of the sales of crude oil are stopped, because 28 nations act together. Again, views differ on the substance of what has been achieved in Iran. Some think that Iran has done too well. Or that the outcome is merely delaying the next crisis.

Well, diplomacy is all about doing what you can do. Even if you think that this Iran deal is sub-optimal, don’t sit muttering on the sidelines of history. Show us a better way for European countries to tackle that problematic portfolio and have a real impact.

Can anyone do that? No. Why? Because there isn’t one.

Iran and Libya and Egypt and Syria remind us of another feature of global diplomacy these days. Precisely because the Europeans had such wide global empires, many countries around the world don’t want to listen to what they regard as lecturing by former imperial powers.

This is another reason for having a two-pronged approach, bringing together bilateral energy, insight and influence with a more generalised “European” message. EEAS diplomats can be more credible than national diplomats in projecting a policy of human rights, transparency, dialogue and reconciliation around the world. They do not walk into a room representing any one former colonial power. They bring with them the possibility of generous project funds or other practical support, pooled and administered by 28 member states and delivered with world class transparency – there are no former colonial “hidden agendas” in play.

To conclude: What do Eurosceptics want from foreign policy? They want freedom of action to take clear positions when their country’s national interests are at stake. They want to share foreign policy resources with friendly partners to get maximum impact – and they want flexibility to work as smaller teams with key partners.

They are ready to share intelligence information tightly with key partners where this makes operational sense. They want robust arrangements to make sure that the EU’s shared institutional foreign policy structures do not squeeze out bilateral diplomacy, but complement it. And they are open to the idea of setting up shared diplomatic premises in some countries with European partners or the EEAS, to save money on overheads and make Europe’s local diplomatic visibility more impressive.

Perhaps above all, if they are citizens of EU member states that have established powerful positions at the UN or their own regional clout in Latin America or Africa or the Middle East, they want their national governments to keep those advantages.

That’s  a  long  list  of  Eurosceptic  requirements.  And  by  great  good  fortune it coincides impressively with what we now have!

As the relative weight of Europe in global counsels falls for economic and demographic reasons, is anything available that is obviously better than this? No. Are there ways to make all this even better, to get more healthy diplomatic juice from our 28 oranges of bilateral diplomacy and the large watermelon of shared EU action? Probably!

I gather that the motto of the Danube Institute is: More debate. Less partisanship. So let’s talk!

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