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Brexit Briefings: Ex-foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind on UK and EU commonality

UK former Cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind is seen talking Brexit and the ways in which the EU and his country should continue to work together after the process is complete, in London on June 23, 2019. (Mainichi/Masanori Hattori)

LONDON -- In our second Brexit series article, the Mainichi Shimbun spoke to politician Sir Malcolm Rifkind of the U.K.'s Conservative Party, who voted to remain in the European Union (EU) in the 2016 referendum.

Born in 1946, Rifkind served in senior Cabinet roles for the John Major government between 1990 and 1997, including as Secretary of State for Defence and as Foreign Secretary, in which he was responsible for the country's response to the Bosnian War and other issues.

When asked about the vote, he said, "Much more quickly than people expected, the leaders of the EU wanted to make it more quasi-federal, (with) more united integration.

"So I think if the European Union had remained as it was when we joined, there would not have been a referendum, or if there had been it would have not produced the same result. Because when we joined, rightly or wrongly, people thought they were joining a trading organization with free trade within Europe, with a common agricultural policy, and with characteristics of that kind."

On the origins of the EU, he explained, "So after the war, when the European community, as it was then called, was created, there were two reasons, two factors.

"People often talk about the European community (being) created so that France and Germany could never go to war with each other, they would become friends. But there was a second consideration.

"When the EU was first formed as the European Community it wasn't just to prevent another war. They also insisted that if you were going to be part of the European community, you had to be democratic and you had to respect the rule of law.

"And so for many of the politicians but also the general public in all these European countries -- who had had Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin and Communism, fascism -- the European Union, although they get frustrated (by it), although they don't like many of the things it does, it's too bureaucratic and all these other things: it's also an insurance policy, not just to prevent us going back to war, but it's also an insurance policy in a country like Poland, in (countries) like Italy and Spain (that) makes us more secure.

"Now that we have democracy and the rule of law and human rights, they cannot just be taken away overnight. Now in Britain, we respect these arguments.

"They are correct arguments, but because of our history, you cannot persuade the British public it is worth accepting all the things we don't like about the European Union in order to have this insurance policy. Because people in Britain do not think they need that insurance policy. We have not been invaded for a thousand years.

"I mean literally since (the Norman invasion of) 1066 this country has not been occupied by a (foreign power) because we are an island. And we have not had any serious threat to our democracy and human rights in this country since Oliver Cromwell, our civil war in the 1600s."

When talking about why he supported the choice to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum, he said, "When the referendum happened, I voted to remain, because although I shared some of these criticisms, my main reason was not to do with trade or economic policy. It was geopolitics. We are living in a world which is becoming more global, and (for) the big decisions that affect the whole world, the countries that have the most impact are (the) United States, China, India, Russia, other very large global powers.

"So I was concerned that Europe would be unheard because it was too disunited. It would not speak with a single voice on foreign policy, on global policy, on climate change, on policy, towards China, on nuclear weapons, on a whole range of these issues. But the referendum went the other way.

But he also says that there are some things which the approach of an exit from the EU cannot and has not changed. "Theresa May, but also the other party leaders, said, 'We had the referendum; the people decided, by a small majority, but by a majority they wanted to leave. We must implement it.' And I have agreed with that.

"Theresa May has said, and on this I agree with her, 'We must always remember we are leaving the European Union. We are not leaving Europe.' We can't leave Europe. That is a function of geography. That is culture, that is geography, that is history. We cannot leave Europe.

"We have worked very well with France and Germany and other countries in many aspects of foreign policy.

"If you look at what has happened since Mr. Trump became president, on most of his main foreign policy initiatives -- on the Iran nuclear deal, on how you deal with climate change, on free trade and multilateral trade negotiations, on whether the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem in Israel or whether that would be too provocative -- on all these issues, the British government has disagreed.

"It has said we actually come to the same conclusion as Paris, as Berlin, as the other European countries."

Looking toward what Rifkind thinks the U.K. and other European nations' future working together could be like after the country leaves the EU, he said, "We are no longer part of the European Union Foreign Affairs Council. So we don't have a veto ... But on most of the important issues, it will make sense if we have the European Union and the United Kingdom speaking with a single voice.

"And I have described what I'm talking about as EU plus one. Now there are precedents for this. For example, when the negotiations for Iran's nuclear program were being conducted, a decision was taken that this should be (the) prime responsibility of the P5, five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.)

"But someone said we have to include Germany because economically they are hugely important. So we created what became known as the P5+1. I am saying in a similar way, not for every issue of foreign policy, but for the big issues we need to develop an EU+1."

Discussions about the possibility of a European military force, proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, have been taking place. But the idea has sparked resistance from U.S. president Donald Trump, who reportedly sees it as an attempt to create an EU defense force against the U.S.

Rifkind said, "The single biggest argument against a European army is that you cannot have a single army unless you have a single state.

"An army is the most important expression of a country's sovereignty and independence. And if you are going to use an army, you can use it for a range of reasons. But the most important (reason) is if you decide to go to war. And the question of peace or war, how you use your army, to allow that to be decided by a majority vote in an international organization is absurd.

"It cannot happen. No country would accept that. And the public would not accept that. We are not prepared to have anything changed on European military matters that would weaken NATO.

"At the end of the day, we benefit as Europeans from the American membership and leadership of NATO and that has helped us win the Cold War against the Soviet Union and protected our freedom over the last 70 years."

***

European foreign and security policy

The EU is speeding up cooperative military forces in European states separate to those involving the U.S.

In December 2017, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) was officially established. Twenty-five of the 28 member states, the exclusions being the exiting U.K., as well as Denmark and Malta which have opt-outs for defense related decisions, are participating.

The concept for PESCO has existed for some time, but the imminent departure of the U.K. from the EU, who had opposed the idea, has been a big factor in its recent implementation.

Differences between Europe and the U.S. have become more apparent since the accession of Donald Trump, on important issues including the Trump administration's pursuit of greater defense spending commitments from European nations, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.

The schisms have led German chancellor Angela Merkel to say that the period in which Europe could rely on other countries is ending, amid a background of what appears to be wider support for a break from the U.S.

Criticism of PESCO from the U.S., including in a May 2019 letter from its deputy secretary of defense, indicate that friction between Europe and America may be getting worse.

(Japanese original by Masanori Hattori, Europe General Bureau (London))

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