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Interview with Sir Stephen Wall

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

September 15, 2006

Is the national interest something which is independent of government or is it, like Herbert Morrison’s definition of socialism, whatever the Labour Government wants to do?

The national interest is clearly defined by the government. But I think government define it in terms of their perception of what the British public feel about themselves and their place in the world. There are certain things that are given regardless of the parties: transatlantic relationship, membership of NATO, the fact that we are economically liberal, and the fact that we are stronger, mostly because of democratic values. The one area that has been the most controversial has been the EU.

Do you think that there is a shared view of the national interest across government?

Yes. If you look across Whitehall you would find that people in the civil service have a very different view from the “Yes Minister” caricature of the civil servant that seeks to make their view prevail in all circumstances. What civil servants like is strong leadership. If you have a situation where people feel that that doesn’t exist, and, with regards to Europe, in the last year or so before the 1997 that was the perception, then you will find that they are unhappy.

If our interests are analogous to those of other European countries, what impact do you think that has on our institutions?

Over time it has a fairly radical impact, but even after 50 years of the EU and almost 30 years of our own membership, we’re still at a fairly early stage. Compare the EU now to when we joined and see the extent of integration in terms of things that we now have a real interest in doing because, in doing them together, we also promote our national interest. For example, in security policy, one obvious example is the whole question of drug trafficking, crime and terrorism which was virtually a non-existent area of EU cooperation until 15 years ago. It’s now inconceivable to us that we would do it in any other way: we are prepared to look at things like majority voting for asylum seeking because we see that we can’t deal with the problems that we face in any other manner. We increasingly approach issues with important constitutional implications in terms of what we want to achieve. That means that the principle of sovereignty, as defined by democratic consent, becomes more important than sovereignty as defined in a rather narrow way.

How do you think that the increased importance of bilateral institutions has changed bilateral relations?

It has certainly dramatically changed the role which diplomats in a bilateral embassy were sent out to do. The role of bilateral embassies is now very different. Once, if you were in a bilateral embassy, you’d spend a very large part of your life talking to your partners about the nitty-gritty of EU negotiations and contributing to the process of working out policy. Now part of that function has become centralised in Whitehall. Every person in Whitehall will have their own contacts in governments around the world.

And do you think Whitehall and domestic departments have the skills they need to do this?

There’s been a dramatic change in the last 20 years or so. When I was dealing with European issues in the early 1980s, you had two or three departments that really knew about Europe: The Foreign Office (because the Foreign Office was responsible for dealing with foreigners), the Ministry of Agriculture (because the CAP was an important part of life) and the DTI (because an important part of trade and industry had aspects of the Single Market).

The Home Office, for example, had no experience of the European Union. Basically, negotiations within Whitehall were infinitely more difficult than negotiations in Brussels. It was much harder to hammer out a deal in Whitehall because people tended to come with absolutely firm departmental positions: that was the British position that had to prevail in Brussels. But then, of course, over the years, more and more people have had experience of serving in the UK Representation. Now when you have discussions in Whitehall, clearly we have British positions, but we also (and increasing majority voting has been a factor) have learnt that you can’t just say “well this is the British position” You have to say “who are our allies?” “How do we make alliances?” “What is the endgame going to look like?”

Do you think that the current structures of government accurately reflect the big issues that we’re dealing with in terms of the balance between national and multilateral affairs?

I think there is still scope for that. When I first arrived in Brussels as Permanent Representative I had lunch with my Spanish opposite number who was just embarking on the Spanish Presidency in 1995, he said ‘forget what you’ve been told about what is done in Brussels – everything in one form or another gets negotiated here.’ In a way he’s right because there are so many issues now where our domestic law is a product of opinions reached in Brussels. I don’t think that we’ve internalised that in Whitehall. There is still a tendency to think of people who know about the EU as European specialists, whereas really, anybody embarking on a Whitehall career now needs to be a European specialist.

Has this changed the role of the Foreign Office?

Yes. In the early days of our membership its co-ordinating role was predominant. That has gradually changed because most of the legislative business of the EU is done in specialist councils. You can’t have a situation in which foreign ministers on the General Affairs Council are experts on the environment, on the Single Market, on energy. Because they’re not the experts, foreign ministers aren’t going to get to grips with the Patent Convention and, of course, because there is that much more real European common foreign policy, they have a pretty full time job doing that – extremely successfully. More and more practical co-ordination work has gone to the European Council of Heads of Government, but that’s not necessarily desirable in terms of the effective management of the European Union, especially when we’re at twenty-five rather than seven. The European Council ought to be making strategic decisions, not sitting there ploughing through the text of conclusions to changes of work here and there: it’s something we’re going to have to look at over the next couple of years. Although the co-ordinating role of the Cabinet Office has grown over the years, the Foreign Secretary remains the senior minister responsible for co-ordinating at the ministerial level. In nine cases out of ten, it is he who concludes ministerial correspondence and ministerial discussion on any particular issue.

Does the civil service culture allow people to take risks?

It does make it difficult, but it is slowly changing. We have traditionally been pretty hierarchical, and the scope for the original view hasn’t been as great as it should be. That is changing through developments in IT which have put paid to the hierarchy of people drafting submissions to Ministers which go up through the layers and end up on blue printed paper. Now, if we in Whitehall are looking at the future of Europe, the desk officer dealing with it in the FCO will put something on an email and we all comment. It’s a much flatter kind of system. And I think that’s much better for the production of ideas and for people’s morale because it makes their job more interesting. But I’m afraid that the tendency to want to produce an agreed view to put to the minister rather than a range of options is still there.

Where do you think our problems on the European question come from?

We emerged from the Second World War with our institutions having served us well and a strong sense of the nation. In de Gaulle’s memoirs he starts off by saying that France as an idea is immutable. But within that, the failures of individuals and the state are very apparent. He contrasts that with Britain, where he comes in 1940 and sees a people dedicated to victory. In the 1950s people failed to perceive the end of empire in a way that seems very simple in retrospect. But it goes back further than that: our whole history as an island is an important factor. There are certain aspects of the reformation and anti-Popery that find an echo in modern euro-scepticism. I’m a Catholic, my father was not, but he married a Catholic. I have a letter which I found when my father died, sent to him by his aunt. It said: “in the church-yard at Derbyvale there are members of the Wall family buried, going back three hundred years. These are yeoman stock, the finest in Britain, and do not allow this tradition to be broken by selling your children out to Popery”. In other words, don’t agree to have your children brought up as Catholics. This was only 1930 not 1630. If my great aunt was alive today she’d be a euro-sceptic. There’s a common thread there.

Do you think that public attitudes to the EU can be changed through experience?

Yes. When I was in Brussels we’d meet groups of constituents who were brought out by MEPs to see the UK Representation. Almost invariably, if they came at the end of their 2 or three days in Brussels and you asked them ‘are you more or less in favour of the EU’, invariably they would say, ‘it’s so different from what we imagined’. When people actually see it they can see that it’s not a sort of sinister, Machiavellian organisation. It’s basically fifteen countries sitting around a table, negotiating, trying to both reflect their individual national interest and come to some solution that is greater than the sum of its parts. And the business of negotiation in the EU is actually pretty recognisable for most people from what they do in their own lives. You just have to open it up so people can see it happening. Now you can’t open it all up, because people have got to be able to do deals and they won’t do deals in front of the cameras. But I would rather that people were bored to death than frightened to death.

To what extent does sovereignty relate to the national interest? Isn’t national interest something quite long term, which can run through several governments?

There are certain aspects of sovereignty which are fairly constant, in the sense that most of us feel British, proud to be British, we have an idea of what Britain is, we have a sense of wanting to preserve our freedom. But if you define sovereignty in terms of certain fixed things that are immutable as opposed to actually advancing your interests in the modern world, then you end up preserving your power to say no, but not actually having any real power to do positive things. I have my own theory that it is difficult for us because of the historical hangover: De Gaulle’s veto was one of the most traumatic events in Britain during my teenage years. I don’t think we’ve yet completed the adaptation of our own view of ourselves. The Prime Minister is constantly trying to do this in his speeches; to get across the idea that after all the ways we thought of the British interest in the past, we now have to think in the same breath of the EU as being the vehicle through which we advance the British interest.

Do you think that British public opinion and the spread of democracy has had an influence on public opinion in other countries?

We still have a caricature of Britain as the home of the bowler hat and the English Gentleman, rather than as a politically, socially, and economically modern nation, which is what the diplomatic service has to communicate. I was very struck by this on a recent visit to our embassy in Bulgaria where we are genuinely trying to help them in a range of areas, and where we’ve got people advising in a lot of ministries. The Bulgarian government said to me “we have more dealings on a day-to-day basis with your Embassy than with any other embassy of any other country”. That’s what modern diplomacy should be about, not about Ambassadors driving around in Rolls Royces flying the flag.

To what extent in the EU are we trying to influence public opinion overseas as well as the government?

Well quite a lot I think. One of the things that increasingly happen is Ministers writing articles in newspapers throughout the EU. Our ambassador in The Hague, Colin Budd, is virtually bilingual in Dutch, and appears on Dutch chat shows. Michael Jay when he was in Paris was a kind of media figure.

We work constantly with colleagues in other EU countries: I’m talking to my German and French opposite numbers and all my colleagues in the European Secretariat the whole time. But at the very least the days are gone when people are taken by surprise by anything our partners might do. One of the tasks this government set itself in what Tony Blair calls a “step change” is actually building that relationship in a much more systematic way. We’ve got to the point where people actually look to us not just as a partner they’ve got to square in order to get things through but someone they want to make alliances with. And during those long nights at the Nice negotiations, we and the Germans worked together on a paper which we gave to the French presidency on the way through the voting issue. That had never happened in our time in the EU before and it would have been unthinkable a few years ago that the Germans would have wanted to do that with us, and would have been prepared to do it. It may be a small thing, but it’s not insignificant.

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