As the UK ignores advice to not waste time, we’re getting on with the job

WHILE the UK Government and body politic have busily ignored Donald Tusk’s sound advice not to waste the extra time granted to them beyond April, the EU carries on with its considerable workload, not least in the area of foreign policy.

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First published in The National, 1 August 2019

For my part, I am pleased that I will continue as a full member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET). The re-election of Germany’s David McAllister from the European People’s Party (EPP) to the Chair of AFET was a further welcome development.

His practical and co-operative approach to the role since 2017 has been helpful to our work and the continuity his re-election will provide is important given that we have such a full in-tray right now.

High on the agenda is the ongoing tension between the US and Iran and the knock-on effects for Europe.

Lately the ongoing fall-out from president Trump’s rejection of the nuclear agreement between Iran, the US, the EU and others has been played out on the shipping lanes of the high seas and, regrettably, the UK Government has handled that matter with as little competence as it handles anything else.

By way of example, we witnessed the embarrassing spectacle of the UK invoking EU sanctions on Syria as justification for seizing Iranian ships in the Mediterranean – and there is cause to argue that they misinterpreted those sanctions in doing so – before calling for a European-led naval operation to provide protection to vessels transiting through the Strait of Hormuz and beyond.

I say embarrassing because in effect the UK Government blundered into a tit-for-tat seizure of ships with Iran and subsequently received short shrift from the Trump administration when asking for their help, to the surprise of nobody but themselves I might add.

In his last week in the job, then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was left with no alternative but to turn to the EU to ask to work together, something he should have done much earlier but couldn’t because of his government’s reckless obsession with Brexit.

Nathalie Loiseau, a French colleague of mine on AFET, described the situation very succinctly: “What I find extremely interesting when a British ship has been seized [is that] there is this reflex to call the Europeans.

“At the very moment when you are talking about Brexit you can see we have common threats and have common ways of assessing threats.”

She was being diplomatic of course but the message was obvious. This situation is a palpable illustration of the benefit of being in the room and of being an equal partner when decisions of this importance are made.

To illustrate the point even further, it just so happens that the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) does currently carry out a naval mission, Operation Atalanta, in precisely this area of the world, albeit countering piracy rather than state actors. The HQ had been at Northwood in England but as a result of Brexit has been moved to Rota in Spain while the operational command passed from a British to a flag Spanish officer.

While the Navy’s already difficult task was made even harder on this occasion by inept diplomatic and operational decision-making at the top levels of the UK Government, there is a further conclusion to be drawn from this episode. The under resourcing of the UK’s conventional forces, including the navy, by successive Westminster governments is a threat to the national security of Scotland, the UK and our near neighbours and allies.

Another piece of business which my AFET colleagues and I have is combatting foreign interference in EU member states and in our democratic processes. That primarily (although unfortunately not exclusively) means Russian financing and support for anti-EU parties and movements as well as calculated attempts to undermine our democratic processes and institutions.

It is possible that the question of such foreign interference will be on the agenda of the September plenary session of the European Parliament, including statements from both the council and the commission on the subject. Another option we are exploring is to set up a temporary parliamentary inquiry committee.

I would be in favour of doing both because, in part because an investigative enquiry with specific terms of reference would help inform our broader political discussions and the actions we choose to take but, above all, because the importance of this issue cannot be overstated.

These are not trivial matters we’re dealing with. The UK Government is failing in its responsibilities to friends and allies, tailspinning in a disaster of its own making. But the world moves on. Scotland has to consider whether it wants to work with the rest of Europe, or to be dragged down by a neurotic neighbour seemingly beyond help.