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FCO in focus

By Adam Hug. Source: The House Magazine

The FCO originally seemed destined to be a relative backwater for the Coalition – despite the presence of a Conservative Big Beast in William Hague – with Government priorities clearly focused on the economy and the domestic agenda. To that end, greater impetus has been given to the FCO's role in supporting British trade promotion efforts. While never far from the minds of any British government, initial scruples around repeating the old 'batting for Britain' approach were soon put on the back burner with the Africa Minister turning up early on in Sudan with a trade delegation despite ICC indictments and the similar slightly awkward appearance of David Cameron in post-Arab Spring Cairo with business people in tow.

The BRICS and the Gulf states have been at the centre of FCO efforts, with concerns on human rights sometimes dialled back to promote business engagement and strategic collaboration, while in a number of embassies staff roles were switched to help deliver the UK's prosperity agenda.

Very clearly domestic political considerations are now shaping relations with the EU, despite the first 18 months of coalition when the FCO managed to keep a lid on some of the main divisions on Europe, with the 'referendum lock' the sole bone thrown to the backbenches. Beneath the current political rhetoric and referendum debate, over the last year FCO officials have been working across government to coordinate the politically and diplomatically perilous Balance of Competences Review. The FCO is trying to balance a series of competing tensions. It needs to deliver something that can be used by the Conservatives as part of the intellectual basis for a shopping list of post-2015 renegotiation demands, while not actually delivering such a list in order to maintain Coalition unity. It must placate the governments of other member states who are concerned about the purpose of the review while dodging flack from the centre-right commentariat about perceived institutional pro-European bias. Despite being placed in an unenviable position, early signs are that civil servants are delivering as thoughtful and measured a process as possible that will leave it to the politicians to divine and define the political significance of its findings.

Effectively using the still impressive diplomatic arsenal at the FCO's disposal can make the difference between success and failure. One of the defining differences between Cameron's relative success in the 2013 EU budget negotiations and his attempted veto in December 2011 (a short-term political success but not a diplomatic one) was that rather than turning up with a negotiating strategy formed at the last minute without a chance to find potential allies, the FCO was able to do its job properly, working with EU partners (most notably the Germans) to forge a common position.

A further manifestation of the Europe debate can be seen in attempts to boost the FCO's international reach through a tie-up with Canada over co-locating new embassies. This was poorly received by European partners as it was seen to be rejecting the opportunity to work more closely on the diplomatic front with the EU's European External Action Service (EEAS), which has a presence in 59 more non-EU countries than the Canadians, and other member states on consular activity.

Similarly the UK has been very wary about expanding the remit of EEAS into new areas, committed as it is to preventing perceived competence creep. So far the FCO is managing to make its way through a challenging period of cutbacks, including the damaging changes to the World Service, with its capability mostly intact and perhaps its status vis-à-vis DfID increased under the Coalition. But while Europe and the economy dominate the domestic political debate, these demands will shape the actions of the FCO and the practice of UK foreign policy.

July 2013. The original article is available in the House Magazine's Guide to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.