Earlier this year, FCO Minister of State Hugo Swire MP opened the first British Diplomatic Mission in Haiti since 1966. Diplomat met with him to discuss the FCO’s intentions to extend its diplomatic reach, solutions to the Falklands question and much more
1. In these times of austerity, why is the UK still expanding its embassy network?
The simple answer is because, now more than ever before, we need to look outwards. We live in an increasingly interconnected world where the spread of global, political and economic power is changing. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is at the forefront of the Government’s response to this trend.
That’s why in 2011 our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave a speech declaring that our diplomatic reach should be extended and not reduced. We don’t want to make the mistakes of the past by neglecting our international partners and losing influence. We have learnt from experience that having feet on the ground makes an enormous difference to the effectiveness of our diplomacy and our ability to understand the priorities of different countries.
Our embassies and high commissions are the essential infrastructure of our country’s influence overseas. They are an important part of our security, both nationally and for individual British nationals in trouble. But they also support our economy and our businesses abroad. We could not and should not be without them.
So it was with great pride that I opened our new Embassy in El Salvador in November 2012, our Embassy in Haiti in June, and our Embassy in Paraguay in October.
2. Why Haiti? And what is the significance of this Embassy opening for British diplomacy?
The last time we had a diplomatic presence in Haiti was 1966, and that is far too long to have been away from a country that matters to the UK and where, in fact, the UK is already heavily involved: supporting Haiti’s development; contributing to its stabilisation through the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH); and helping the government to develop disaster-resilience measures.
UK Aid helped the government of Haiti cope with the effects of the 2010 earthquake, the cholera epidemic and, more recently, Hurricane Sandy. Britain now spends £70
million a year in aid to Haiti, and this year we gave a further £10 million to help it cope better with future earthquakes and other disasters. We have a lot invested in Haiti and want to provide every support to their government as it implements reforms. We can do that best by actually being there on the ground.
But, like every country, the key to Haiti’s future is developing a prosperous economy. We only have to look across the border to the Dominican Republic to remind ourselves what Haiti once was, and has the potential to become again. Trade is the way to revive a country, and British businesses have a huge amount to offer – whether access to markets, finance or expertise. And, being one of the most prolific travelling nations in the world, Britons hold the potential to invigorate the fledgling Haitian tourism industry.
Haiti is also an important partner for the UK in a variety of international arenas. As a member of the United Nations, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and CARICOM, amongst others, Haiti is a valuable partner with shared interests and beliefs in international issues.
3. The FCO has said that they are focusing on British representation being established in emerging powers to make the most of opportunities in these regions. What ‘opportunities’ are there in Haiti and in the locations of other recent British Embassy openings, such as Laos in April of this year?
Opportunities come in many forms, from trade to the strengthening of cultural links.
In Haiti a small number of UK firms are already operating successfully, such as Kier and Crown Agents. We are determined to encourage more, which is why there was a UK trade mission to Port-au-Prince in February. Prosperity, trade and growth are priorities for the UK Government – and they bring huge benefits for both parties – so building trade and business links will be a core part of the new Embassy’s role.
Of course, there is no denying that, along with many opportunities, challenges remain. So the support we provide to the many British NGOs that have also been operating in Haiti for many years will continue to be important, as they work with the Government of Haiti to help them achieve their development goals. They have had real impact, and have helped create the stability, open dialogue and open business environment that will encourage investment and growth.
The overriding aims of all our embassies are very similar, but the way in which they are implemented varies according to local priorities, issues and cultures.
Our new Embassy in Laos is enabling us to work closely with the Laotian government on regional and international issues that matter to both our countries. The team in Vientiane is working to promote understanding between our two peoples, for instance on human rights and democracy, and also encouraging trade between our two countries as the economic importance of Laos and ASEAN grows. With a permanent presence in Laos, we are much better placed to provide advice to British companies interested in trading or investing in Laos and to support the approximately 35,000 British nationals who visit Laos each year.
4. With the opening of the British Embassy in Laos, the UK now has an embassy in every ASEAN country. Why is that important to the British government going forward?
The ASEAN region has opportunities that we simply cannot afford to ignore.
One fact that really stands out to me is that if ASEAN was a single economy it would be the world’s ninth-largest – bigger than India or Russia. It is a growing centre of trade with an impressive track record in financial services.
The diversity of the national economies in ASEAN is huge. Many ASEAN countries have significant natural resources, and some, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, are also impressive manufacturing nations. There really is something for every business interest. And, of course, countries like Thailand are hugely popular with tourists, which drives wider public interest in the region.
Basing ourselves in every ASEAN country is something that this Government has been determined to do since coming into office. In 2011, ASEAN attracted 7.6 per cent of global foreign direct investment – up from only 4.3 per cent in 2006. This is a considerable rise, and we want to be there on the ground encouraging it and getting involved.
5. With regard to the Falkland Islands, is there a peaceful diplomatic solution on the way?
This is one of the questions I get asked most when I meet people or on Twitter.
The peaceful diplomatic solution is for Argentina to recognise the Islanders’ rights to determine their own future. There are three parties to this debate, not just two as Argentina likes to pretend. The Islanders can’t just be written out of history. They have the right of self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As such, there can be no negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until the Islanders so wish. But the Islanders showed very clearly that they want to remain British, when 99.8 per cent of them voted in favour of the status quo in their referendum in March.
Our differences on the Falklands apart, we have a rich and deep bilateral relationship with Argentina, built not just on official contacts but also personal links. The England Rugby team visited Argentina earlier this year, for example, and the number of Argentines visiting the UK increased by 27 per cent last year, to over 100,000.
6. What do you think is the FCO’s greatest diplomatic challenge at the moment?
At any one time there is always a wealth of challenges. The violence and instability in Syria remains very high on our agenda and we continue to express our concerns about the nuclear ambitions of both Iran and North Korea.
From a personal point of view I am also keen to ensure that our Overseas Territories maintain the self-determination they have worked so hard to gain. In the twenty-first century it is vital that people feel empowered to direct their own futures and make their own decisions.
I know that the Foreign Secretary feels particularly strongly about the progress of the Middle East Peace Process, which is surely one of the greatest challenges of our time. As he has said, it should be an urgent priority for the international community as a whole. The UK wants to see a two-state solution, with a secure and universally-recognised Israel living alongside a Palestinian state. We are ready and willing to support this goal in any way we can.
7. On a more personal note, do you think your time in the armed forces has helped you in your current role as Minister of State?
Well, diplomacy can sometimes feels like a bit of a battle!
I do feel though, in all seriousness, that experiences across my working life have helped to prepare me for this role. Certainly this includes the rigour and discipline of the Armed Forces, but also my work as a businessman, as a constituency MP, and as a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office.
My current portfolio certainly keeps me busy, covering not just Asia and Latin America but also the Pacific, the Commonwealth and the Falkland Islands. There is a lot of ground to cover and there are many different issues at any one time. I have to organise myself well – with the help of my office, of course. But this is a very rewarding role. I am able to work on some fascinating countries and meet some really engaging people. It is an excellent place to be.
8. What are your main plans and priorities going forward as Minister of State for the FCO?
The balance of the world continues to shift and it is very thought-provoking to see it all playing out. I am keen to ensure that the FCO is well-placed to continue to deal with this change.
I am looking forward to visiting Colombia and Peru in the near future, and Brazil for the second time – the first being in 2012, when I accompanied the Prime Minister.
There is also the challenge of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in November. The UK is attending due to the importance we attach to the Commonwealth. However, we remain concerned about human rights in Sri Lanka. Hosting CHOGM will put Sri Lanka in the spotlight and will either highlight progress and respect for Commonwealth values or the absence of such progress. We will continue to encourage Sri Lanka to uphold Commonwealth values ahead of CHOGM.