- Lord Alan Watson is a member of the House of Lords, Prince of Wales Business Leaders' Forum and head of CTN Communications. After Cambridge, Lord Watson had a prolific career in journalism at BBC World Service, BBC 1 and BBC 2 and was also responsible for Media at the European Commission. Former member of the European Parliament's High Level Group on Romania during the EU accession process, Lord Watson was awarded in 2004 the Commander's Grand Cross of the Romanian Order of Merit for his significant contribution and in 2011 the University of Bucharest awarded him the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa. Lord Watson’s wide breadth of professional and scholarly experience makes him a truly engaging speaker and he accepted to discuss UK’s foreign policy and the current European Union climate.
Lord Watson: I regret the fact that the veto was used. After all, it has been British policy in the European Union to enlarge the European Union to its present numbers, and at the end of all that we were isolated and we were the only country that actually opposed, so I think that was unfortunate. There were however good reasons for it.
The British economy is inconceivable without the role of the City of London. In a sense, what manufacturing is to Germany or what agriculture is to France, the City of London is to Great Britain, and we were nervous that the regulations which were being proposed would penalize the City of London and would make it more expensive for foreign investors to use.
We were not incidentally only worried about our own position, we were also worried that, if action of this kind was taken, it could mean that quite a lot of financial transactions would switch away from Europe altogether, to either New York or Singapore or somewhere else.
AA: This is not the first EU initiative, which would have meant giving up even more sovereignty to EU institutions that the UK did not approve of. In your opinion, can the current UK foreign policy in the EU be seen as a form of protectionism from the Euro Zone difficulties?
Lord Watson: As I have explained, one of the motives for this veto was to protect the City of London from regulations which could have had a negative impact upon it. So, yes, that is a form of protectionism, but I think the fundamental UK position is something different.
The whole European Union idea, closer and closer, ever closer Union, was born of the results of the Second World War and, in particular, France and Germany which had both suffered in different ways from the Second World War, both had been defeated, both had been occupied. They were determined that nothing like that could ever happen or would ever happen again. So, in a way, they were suspicious of national sovereignty and the other countries took a similar view.
Britain’s experience in the Second World War was completely different. A lot of people lost their lives, there was a lot of damage, but Britain was a victorious power and she was not invaded. Therefore, the British instinctively have a trust in their own sovereignty and they do not wish to see it compromise.
Although Britain starts from a quite different place in terms of European integration, we have arrived at a rather similar place. I think we do fully accept that European integration is something that is in certain sectors absolutely essential, in the environment for example. Also, I think we basically are willing to share sovereignty around certain areas, but there is still this reservation.
And one final thing, we do not have in Great Britain a written Constitution, we have a Parliament and we have the Crown in Parliament. The whole of the European construction is about treaties and about constitutions and I think instinctively the British are suspicious of constitutions.
AA: In the last few weeks, the media have been speaking of a two-speed Europe. Do you believe this scenario is inevitable or is it happening as we speak?
Lord Watson: There clearly are different dimensions to the European Union. It is not just the Euro Zone. You have always had a fundamentally closer relationship between the original six members of the European Union and the countries that joined later.
But the question was about speeds. That of course implies that we are all moving in a certain direction and that we move towards that goal at different speeds. I am not sure there is a single goal. I think Europe is a fact, Europe is essential to every Member States’ position in the modern world, but I do not think we are heading in one single direction, for example to become a United States of Europe.
AA: From your perspective, would the idea of a “United States of Europe” be a viable option, because some, for instance even the President of Romania, support this idea?
Lord Watson: It is a very difficult concept. It is sometimes called the concept of Federal Union and, of course, the idea is the moment you say “United States” that somehow this is going to be rather like the United States of America. I do not think it is like the United States of America, I believe that the European Union is its own being, it is unique, it is not like the United States or like China or like anywhere else, it is what it is. Europe is characterized by not just commonality of purpose and commonality of interest, but it is also characterized by diversity, linguistic diversity, cultural diversity.
I mean, you come from Romania and Romania is very aware of its own different identity, and so are the countries within the United Kingdom, Scotland and Wales, as well as England, and I do not want that to change actually, I think that our diversity is part of our strength.
If you look at the American Constitution, for example, its motto is that they are a single entity, from the many “E pluribus unum”, “From many, one”. Well, we have a pluribus and we have created this different relationship between states, a new relationship, which I believe will have great influence on the future of the world and will be copied in some ways elsewhere in the world., but we are not copying the United States.
AA: There is also an EU Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP), but at the same time each Member State has its own foreign policy initiatives and interests. Do you believe the CFSP is still relevant and would it have potential to further develop?
Lord Watson: Yes, I think so, and I think you could already see this. For years there was a rather sterile argument actually about whether there should be a European Common Defense Policy and Britain kept on saying that you must not compromise the NATO relationship and you must be careful of the relationship between Europe and the United States. The French, by contrast, were very keen on the idea of having a European defense force in some way and they believed that they could persuade the Germans to go along with it. But the reality is very different.
Britain and France are the only two nuclear powers in the European Union and there is already a very high degree of cooperation between them in terms of the nuclear forces. There has also been cooperation on Libya, where the French and the British were actually acting together. There was a lot of support from other countries as well. Germany is much more reluctant to go down that route because of the Second World War and its Constitutional position which actually very much restricts the ability of Germany to act outside its own borders, although I welcome the fact that Germany has sent troops to Afghanistan and I also welcome the move in Germany away from a conscript army, to a professional army.
So, I think you will find that there will be both in defense, but also in foreign policy very important areas of commonality.
I will end my answer by point out one very obvious one, that is the relationship with China and the relationship with Russia. Every European country has a bilateral relationship with both Russia and China, but it is very much in our interests on energy and other topics that we make it clear that there is also a European position. I think we are having some success with that, that China and Russia, both of whom historically were very unwilling even to recognize the existence of the European Union, now take it extremely seriously.
AA: How should the fine balance between bilateral vs. EU foreign policy be struck in relation to these so-called BRICS countries? Or is it a matter of either/or?
Lord Watson: I really do believe it is both, but I think you have to play both. For example, the EU has very successfully negotiated trade agreements with the United States, more recently with Japan, now with South Korea, and we have to arrive at equivalent ones with Russia and China. Now, that is going to be a major challenge. But that does not mean that British companies, for example, would not be going to China and doing their best to sell to China.
Your question was what is the balance. Well, it may be that over the decades to come, the balance begins to move towards the single policy and away from the individual policies, but you are always going to have huge differences.
Let me just leave you with this thought, there is a special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, and it is based on history, on language, on being allies in two World Wars. There are a lot of reasons for it and it has lots of ramifications, including security ramifications, and I do not see that special relationship going away. I think France will have special relationships, and does, with Francophone countries, Germany has a special relationship to some extent with Russia and with Middle Europe, and I think you must expect that. If you take your own country, Romania, which has more borders than pretty well anyone else, of course you also have special relationships and I think that is inevitable.