‘One of our objectives over the coming years in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to increase our influence in the world. We’re not going to shrink back and say our influence belongs to the past. We’re going to find new ways of extending our input on the emerging powers of the world and across the wider world in general. One of the ways of doing that is to be influential in the European Union.’
These are the strong words with which Foreign Secretary William Hague opened a meeting at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London last month to promote a new initiative to increase the UK’s level of representation in Europe. The audience, made up of heads of university departments, career advisors and ‘influencers’ from around the country, was also addressed by David Lidington, Minister For Europe, Simon Fraser, Permanent Under Secretary of the FCO, and several other big guns – a sign of how seriously the government is taking this issue.
The UK is currently severely under-represented among EU institutions: Britain may be home to 12.5 per cent of the EU’s population, but it only provides six per cent of the EU staff. Last year, a mere 1.5 per cent of applications (750 out of 50,000) to the EU’s entrance exam were British, lower than any other member state, suggesting a serious lack of interest. And the problem is about to get worse, with more than 40 per cent of UK nationals working in EU institutions expected to retire over the next 10 years.
The coalition government hopes not only to ensure that representation levels do not fall further, but moreover to double them. ‘We have fallen recently way down the league of the number of people in our country going into EU institutions,’ said Mr Hague. ‘And it’s very important we put it right. It’s where a lot of the action is in the economics and politics of the world.’
The EU, Mr Hague stressed, has a vital role to play in influencing global affairs, from Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons programme to international trade relations. Both for that reason and because of the EU’s impact on the UK, Britain must ensure that its voice is heard. ‘In many ways – economically, diplomatically, politically – in the world, our influence comes through the EU. And we need to be able influence events within the EU. Rules, regulations and decisions made within the EU directly influence the lives of people in this country.’
The FCO’s initiative is primarily targeting graduates and young people with excellent language skills. But candidates with experience in other careers – among them lawyers, economists, engineers, civil servants and diplomats – are also being sought. ‘The EU is looking for specialists as well as generalists,’ Simon Lidington, Minister for Europe, tells me when we meet after his speech at the event. ‘When it comes to diplomats, I’d be keen to find ways in which the EU could be a bit more flexible in its approach to secondments. I think it’s a healthy state of affairs where people who come from other departments spend a few years at the FCO and go back to their parent department understanding more about Britain’s global role.’
Mr Lidington believes that a better showing in the EU could be good news for diplomats. ‘I’m not expecting that new British recruits to the commission or other institutions will take orders from ministers sitting in King Charles Street. But I do think, if we can end the curse of our under-representation it will help us, by ensuring the British perspective is properly understood and internalised within those institutions in ways that it is not always at the moment. That means there’s less pressure on our diplomats to try to redress that balance. Diplomats will be starting off in a stronger position.’
Matthew Rycroft, himself a former diplomat previously posted as the UK’s Ambassador in Sarajevo, currently works as EU Director at the FCO, leading its ‘Success in Europe’ campaign. He is well aware that diplomats have skills that can be very useful within the EU: ‘There’s a new organisation in the European External Action Service [EEAS] which in a large part will be made up of secondees from the different member states’ diplomatic services. We’ve been encouraging British diplomats to put themselves forward for those secondments and many have. Most of the skills [diplomats have] are transferable, [being] about leadership and influencing and negotiating, getting the best out of all your staff.’
Attracting British nationals to the EU means overcoming a few barriers, though, from (perhaps legitimate) concerns that foreign language skills in the UK don’t match those on the Continent to Brussels’ image as a stuffy and bureaucratic work environment. ‘From my own experience, it’s a very vibrant place,’ Mr Rycroft counters. ‘The people who work there are very dedicated, very intelligent, very fast. It’s a very exciting atmosphere and the stakes are high. People there are dealing with issues which, on the economic side, for example, might cost the UK billions of pounds.’
Mr Lidington hopes that more British people in the EU will not only be better for Britain, but could also be part of improving the EU and helping it better achieve its own goals. ‘There are problems over the EU still being at times too inward-looking. In some parts it is tempted towards protectionism, and I think the UK has an important responsibility to play in championing free and open markets as the best way to create wealth and jobs in the future. And the EU hasn’t focused with sufficient clarity on what it wants to do in its relations with the wider world. There’s been far too much naval-gazing over institutions, and while we’ve been doing that the world has been changing rapidly and dramatically. The EU should be focusing on a limited, well-defined agenda of external action, starting [not only] with the relationships with the big global economic partners – China, India, the United States – but also on conflict prevention and resolution, especially in the immediate neighbourhood.’
‘There have been successes,’ he says, referring to recent EU achievements in Serbia and Kosovo and the current package of sanctions aimed at stalling Iran’s nuclear programme. ‘What was finally agreed [regarding the sanctions] was significantly tougher than I think either Washington or Tehran expected. That’s good news. It shows [that] if there’s political will, [then] the EU can achieve things together that it could not achieve with 27 countries acting separately.’
Does the drive to get more British people into the EU say anything politically about the new government’s feelings towards Europe? ‘I make no secret of the fact I think the EU is a far-from-perfect institution,’ says Mr Lidington. ‘There are many things I’d like to change. But the government is committed to our membership and to making our membership work in the national interest. I want us to be in the position where we’re not only vigorously defending British interests, but where we actually see initiatives coming out of Brussels that reflect British priorities and Britain’s view about the right way forward for the European Union. To take an obvious example, the biggest single challenge facing the EU today, beyond the immediate financial crisis, is the erosion of our competitiveness compared with Asia, Latin America and the United States. If we don’t put that right, we’re condemning the next generation to falling living standards and lower expectations. That means Europe should be focusing on job creation, free and open markets, and how to strengthen trading links with the emerging economies. There’s a huge agenda which chimes with British interest, but also represents the best interests of the EU as a whole.’