This is the full, prepared speech by Crispin Blunt for the Queen's Speech debate on foreign affairs and Brexit, foreshortened when delivered due to speaking time limits
This is a defining Parliament for Britain’s place in the Europe and the world, and Parliament will fail in its duty if it does not preside over the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and in doing so in as good order as our 27 partners and negotiators enable.
This entails the historic amount of legislative activity announced in the Queen’s Speech, to convert the ‘acquis communautaire’ into UK law. Much of this work will be detailed and technical, and it is important that we get right, but hopefully it will not be controversial. However, the diplomatic activity we undertake in the coming months and years will be important for Britain’s future and must not play second fiddle to our legislative challenge.
I welcome the Queen's Speech commitment that Ministers will ensure that the UK's leading role on the world stage is maintained and enhanced as it leaves the EU. Few in this House, regardless of their own position on the referendum question that we resolved one year ago, want the UK to be anything other than open and internationalist in its outlook. Now more than ever, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have a central role in maintaining our networks and alliances and in developing our political, security and economic ties around the world.
In the previous Parliament, the Foreign Affairs Committee, which I chaired, as I hope to do so again in this Parliament, repeatedly called for the FCO’s capacity to be boosted. Immediately after the referendum, we reported that there was an urgent need to substantially increase “the funding available to the FCO commensurate with the enormity of the task it now faces”. Since then, the Department for Exiting the EU has been created to manage exit negotiations in Brussels and the Department for International Trade to prepare our future trade treaties. But the diplomatic task required in all European capitals and beyond will outlast the withdrawal process and is discrete from the trade agenda. I reiterate that just protecting the FCO budget is wholly inadequate for the task in hand.
We have already seen over recent weeks that as we grapple with the complexities of Brexit, world events will continue to develop with serious consequences for our interests. The current crisis in the Gulf and the potential for a hot or protracted cold war on the Arabian Peninsula threaten the stability and prosperity of key British partners and have undermined the effectiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The responsibility of managing direct mediation has fallen to the Gulf’s elder statesman, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah. But there are calls for the UK to play a role as a third party in the implementation and monitoring of parts of any future agreement. We should do so, particularly by offering our expertise in auditing any counter terror-financing measures and indeed on what the ground rules might be for political Islamists to take part in developing democracies. That would be in the interest of all parties. It is vital that we are ready and properly resourced to carry out such work if requested.
In Syria, as de-escalation agreements are broadly holding in the West of the country, the conflict is moving into a new phase being dubbed the “scramble to the East” raising questions that all Members will need to address.
Militias aligned with the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian Governments have pushed eastwards, coming toe-to-toe with groups that the UK and US support in al-Tanf and al-Tabqa. Members will have seen that the US military, in order to protect these forces, has recently bombed Iranian militia convoys, aligned to the Syrian government, and shot down a Syrian warplane and drone, prompting Russia to declare US and UK aeroplanes west of the Euphrates as ‘targets’. Last year British Special Forces were photographed reportedly operating in al-Tanf and we must consider how far we are willing to go to protect our own forces, and whether we are content to allow the US to work alone on this.
We will have to address the long term status of the territories taken by forces we support, whether we endorse the de-facto partition of Syria, and what role this should play in any future negotiation for a wider political settlement.
Recent months have shown us that chemical weapons are still being used in Syria, in violation of the 2013 deal that was supposed to have eliminated them. The US administration, with the support of many in the international community, showed a willingness to punish and deter such action, begging the question of how we should respond to any American request to join future such operations.
There is clearly a need for parliamentary time to debate the authorisation of the use of force and build the cross-party consensus necessary for the UK to contribute to decisive action in the international interest.
Returning to the issue that should dominate this Parliament, consensus will also be needed in building a deep and special partnership with the EU and I hope that instead of being a reluctant member state, we can be an ambitious partner of the EU. As the February White Paper stated, “we will continue to play a leading role alongside EU partners in buttressing and promoting European security and influence around the world”.
I recently made my own suggestions for continuing close cooperation between the EU and UK on foreign and security issues, which I presented to my counterparts at the EU Presidency Inter-Parliamentary conference in Malta in April. The positive approach was well-received because there is a recognition of the common interest in continuing security cooperation and mutually reinforcing foreign policy positions. We will need new mechanisms to achieve this, but this should not be insurmountable with goodwill. The Foreign Affairs Committee can be an important contributor to work on the design of that future relationship, which could find consensus across the House.
More tricky, I expect, is the future trade relationship with the EU27. This will clearly be of much debate in this House and a key part of the negotiations. But, despite the noise, the heated arguments and the inevitable posturing, many of the differences are of emphasis and timing.
There is general agreement that staying indefinitely in the single market and the customs union would leave us with free movement and as a rule-taker without the flexibility to do other trade deals. There is a recognition, too, that untangling over 40 years of EU membership smoothly will take time and therefore probably require transitional arrangements until a deep and comprehensive future trade arrangement is agreed. There are different ways to get there, but a time-limited 2 year spell in the EEA, coinciding with the period of the current EU budget, would be one relatively straightforward option. This would allow the UK and EU to conduct and conclude a deep and comprehensive free trade deal over a longer and achievable period in a calmer environment post-Brexit. It would also lower the headline divorce bill.
On the question of timings, the omission of President Trump’s State Visit from the Queen’s speech means that it will not happen this year. This provides an opportunity to reconsider the appropriate time for the full State Visit and I again urge the Government and the US administration to consider holding the State Visit in 2020. This would mark the 400 year anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ transatlantic voyage aboard the Mayflower.
Such an important anniversary, marking the depth of our relationship with our most important ally would also signal in 2020 our transition to Global Britain; A good and true friend to our European and American allies and a truly internationalist nation, open to the world, blessed with a global heritage and a global future.