General Election 2015: Have our politicians just forgotten about foreign policy?

Our leaders lack the vision to tackle the massive challenges that confront them

Shirley Williams
Wednesday 29 April 2015 17:21 BST

At a time of growing turbulence in the world – a restless Russia, a politically gridlocked United States, a chaotic Middle East – how strange that none of these issues has been seriously addressed during this general election campaign, not even in the one and only television debate between the party leaders that the election offered us. Ed Miliband, to his credit, did speak at Chatham House, the renowned think tank on international affairs, about Labour’s foreign policy. Nick Clegg has talked about the European Union and its relation to the wider world. But that just about sums up the election debate on foreign policy.

Tony Blair was right to remind us that the EU guarantees the UK its largest market, a market without borders. But more than that, in an unstable world it gives us much greater security than we would have on our own. It provides us with protection against organised crime and terrorism. It enables us, as a country, to speak and act above our weight in the many international organisations of which the UK is a member.

We are still, as our role in the battle against Ebola showed, globally involved. If, as Nigel Farage proposed, we had taken no part in the struggle against that terrible disease, do we imagine we would have come out unscathed as it spread throughout and beyond Africa? The Prime Minister, however, apart from Ebola and certain trade missions, has not actively pursued a global role. He has allowed the UK to be marginalised in Europe. As leader of the Conservative Party, he pulled out of the moderate, right-of-centre Conservative and Christian Democrat group, the European People’s Party, in 2009, in pursuit of a political deal with his own hard-line right wing. That has not been forgotten or forgiven by other European countries. If he had stayed in, he would have shared the leadership of this significant group with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.

On the single most dangerous issue facing Europe, the continuing conflict between Russian-supported separatists and the government of Ukraine, Mr Cameron did not take part in the Minsk discussion to which Ms Merkel and François Hollande were invited. Yet the UK was one of only four signatories to the Budapest memorandum of December 1994, which guaranteed the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine. The fragile peace constructed there is already breaking down, with skirmishes around the town of Mariupol. Meanwhile Ukraine itself, which now has a new government committed to fighting the country’s endemic corruption and to economic reform, is in danger of going bankrupt and being unable to pay its debts. The IMF and the EU must extend substantial financial help until this independent country, constantly under pressure from its large neighbour Russia and its frustrated President, Vladimir Putin, can stand on its own feet.

Ukraine has great potential, a country of culture, rich agricultural land and large but mainly obsolete mining and heavy industry. It does not need to become a member of the EU nor of Nato at the present time, but it is vital that it is seen as having committed EU financial and political support.

Next, Iran. Its government has agreed to continue detailed negotiations on its nuclear weapons capacity. And it has engaged in some military action against Isis. The UK has now re-established diplomatic relations with Iran, although it has not yet re-opened its Embassy in Tehran. There is an opportunity for the UK as one of the recognised nuclear powers, the P5, to play a constructive role, one the US President cannot undertake on his own given the committed opposition to any relationship of the Republican majority in the Senate.

Meanwhile, India has been deeply offended by the difficulty of getting student visas to study in this country, not only because of bureaucratic delays but also because the Home Office last year withdrew so-called postgraduate work visas. These enabled scientists and medics to work in the UK for two years after graduation, giving them close practical knowledge of British organisations and public services, notably the NHS, and scientific research.

Young men and women from India have made a valuable contribution, one our universities and hospital trusts appreciate. But now Indian applications to study here are dropping in favour of Australia, Canada and the US. In 2014 they had fallen by 12 per cent from the year before. Here again, the Prime Minister has shown no great interest in the damage the Home Office is doing to our diplomatic and political relations with India’s newly elected government.

The most recent foreign policy – and humanitarian – challenge is the wave of refugees and asylum-seekers from the Middle East and north Africa, victims of civil war, terrorism and dictatorship seeking safety in Europe. Last year I was briefly in Eritrea. It has a government, but I have rarely been anywhere more desolate, wretched and hopeless. It reminded me of the visit I paid as a teenage student to occupied West Germany, when starving civilians lived in bombed ruins looking for food and cigarette stubs. Yet within five years, assisted by the Marshall Plan, West Germany was pulling itself together, moving towards a democratic government, rebuilding its economy.

This tsunami of desperate humanity cannot be dealt with by a policy of rescue, detention and in most cases deportation. They are the victims of unemployment, hunger and hopelessness. Europe has to find a lasting answer. Ideas range from a new Marshall Plan – organised under UNHRC oversight and paid for jointly by the EU and a levy on Opec members – to proportional allocations of genuine refugees among EU member-states based on population, with an option of paying for a similar number being sustained in refugee host countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Our political leaders – not just here but in the US, the Commonwealth and Europe – lack the vision, the magnanimity, the boldness to tackle the massive challenges that confront them. These challenges demand much more than a national response, let alone a parochial isolationist one. Britain’s future as a significant member of the global community is surely an issue that should be central to this election. But so far it has been little more than the distant rumble of a massive storm a long way away.

Shirley Williams was co-founder of the Social Democrat Party and is a former Labour cabinet minister. She is a member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington DC and Professor Emeritus of Elective Politics at Harvard

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