Labour need to rebuild Britain’s reputation closer to home before they are once again respected enough to take action on the world stage, warns Sam Alvis
Global affairs are back on the agenda. The Tories are using Brexit to launch an ‘Empire 2.0’ strategy, misguided both in direction and naming. Foreign policy is also one of the Labour leadership’s most vulnerable areas. Ill-timed photos and long-held opinions have them out of step with much of the British public, and a smarter Conservative campaign could exploit some precarious positions.
Unfortunately voters are wising up to foreign policy just as Britain trashes its reputation abroad. Beyond a foreign secretary making borderline xenophobic, but at the very least undiplomatic statements, leaving the European Union has left Britain friendless. Take the case of the Chagos Islands. In June, Mauritius successfully passed a United Nations resolution referring their disputed ownership to The Hague following decolonisation in the 60s. The United Kingdom lost the vote 94 to 15, after former EU allies abstained.
The Labour manifesto had just ambition to address conflicts in the Yemen and Syria, as well as problems in Libya and Israel, while a minister for peace is laudable. But both are folly in the current climate. Britain does not have the weight to pursue such policies. And that is before accounting Trump’s next, gamble and what more hand-holding would do to our reputation.
Labour values are the perfect way to rebuild Britain’s standing abroad. Our history of universal human rights and international solidarity are excellent foundations to work from. But the leadership need to recognise that this has to begin much closer to home. Neighbours are our most important allies, and are the relationships most at risk from the Tories attitude to Brexit. Europe is also where some of the greatest threats to British security lie. There are four areas Labour should address to protect the UK and our friends in Europe:
Supporting the rule of law
Turkey’s slide into illiberalism under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accelerated at an alarming rate. Since a failed military coup in July 2016, Erdoğan has seized power through a rigged referendum and imprisoned any opposition. The EU has spoken out, with Germany in particular standing up to the jailing of its citizens. The Tories desperate for trade are silent. But the EU is also constrained by their deal on migrants, which relieved pressure on member states, and intra-EU relations. A Labour government should use strong words and sanctions to support the EU. Work visas and continued trade with the UK are a strong carrot for Erdoğan. Labour should make them contingent on the rule of law.
Likewise a Labour government can be more outspoken on Polish attempts to seize control of their independent judiciary. The UK and Poland have a shared history and were strong allies within the EU. The EU is loath to punish Poland at a time when unity is paramount, but the UK is more flexibility. Guaranteeing existing rights to EU citizens would buy favour with the Polish government, and losing British support for infrastructure projects and joint security would be greater than the reward of judiciary control.
The migrant crisis has not gone. Italy and Greece and under increasing pressure and a new influx is straining relationships even between more liberal member states. Emmanuel Macron is working in Libya to stem the flow, while Angela Merkel has made stabilising north African countries central to Germany’s G7 presidency. A Labour government should unashamedly support these initiatives. The UK has the intelligence and economic clout to make them a success, but cannot be seen to lead. Key EU states must see Britain’s actions as a sign of it’s continued to desire to work together. Stability and a reducing terrorism in north Africa is in all of Europe’s interests.
Support should go hand in hand with Labour pushing for observer status on EU foreign policy. Feeding into joint actions and offering its intelligence through information sharing. This is something even senior Tories are pushing for with recent statements by former foreign secretary, William Hague, and former chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Crispin Blunt.
Vladimir Putin was delighted with Brexit. Anything to undermine international institutions can help bring vulnerable eastern European states into his sphere of influence. A weak EU makes Russian partnership more attractive to states like Albania, and lower incentives for them to address corruption or human rights.
The Labour leadership must stand up to Russia, and stop appearing on Russia Today, a state-run propaganda mouthpiece. Labour must state its support for Russian sanctions, as well as aiding reform in eastern states, bringing them closer to western Europe. Labour should also find ways to work with other states against Russia interference in elections.
These three areas are a stepping stone to addressing the grand challenges in the Labour manifesto. The leadership need to recognise the reality of international affairs and give their vision practicality and realism. Labour’s values will be integral to rejuvenating the UK’s international relationships, and ultimately protecting security at home and abroad.
Sam Alvis is a former Labour party staffer now working in research, innovation, security and international relations. He tweets at @SamAlvis2
Credit: Richard Gardner
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