How the British Government’s European Policy is Made
How the British Government’s European Policy is Made
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explains how Britain makes its policy towards Europe. Successive British governments have used a model of decision-making on European Union (EU) issues which is often envied by other member states and has been emulated by not a few. The Foreign Secretary, as chairman of the European Committee of Cabinet, sums up interministerial correspondence on a particular EU issue, tries to adjudicate where there is disagreement, and chairs a meeting of the committee where his word alone is not enough to resolve a dispute. It was no more than common sense therefore for the Prime Minister to have a small team dealing with foreign policy rather than a one-man band. The final piece in the jigsaw of European policymaking in London is implementation: how the policy decisions of ministers are carried out.
As I was writing this book, I remarked to a friend on the similarity between speeches made on Europe by Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair. My friend replied that that was hardly surprising since the speeches had, in each case, been written by people like me.
That view correspondents to the brilliant caricature in the TV series Yes Minister where the politically astute, but otherwise clueless minister, Jim Hacker, is led a dance by the cynical, self-serving, manipulative civil servant, Sir Humphrey. In the background, torn between his loyalty to his minister and his dependence on his bureaucratic boss for his future success, lurks the luckless Private Secretary, Bernard.
As with all good caricatures, it is recognisable enough to be plausible and far enough from the truth to be laughed at as parody. But the notion of policy made by generations of civil servants almost regardless of which political party happens to be in power is well ingrained. So too is the image of the power-hungry, self-interested politician for whom perception (spin) is more important than policy. The fact that politicians are collectively held in such low esteem owes much to this view. It is a view which reflects the black and white, un-nuanced rhetoric of political debate in Britain where the two-party system, and first past the post, create the kind of confrontational politics which marks out the House of Commons by comparison with other European parliaments where coalition politics are the norm.
At the other extreme is the view, sometimes found in otherwise brilliant and insightful studies, which portrays government decision-making as ordered, logical, rational, and predictable. In reality, the factors which make up the processes of government are an extraordinary, complex, and changing mixture of factors which include an inherited view of the British national interest, partisanship, personality, circumstance, public pressures, luck (or the lack of it), and, of course, a coherent, ordered, dispassionate effort to analyse what needs to be done in the national interest and a wholehearted and conscientious effort to turn declared policy into accomplished fact.
(p.186) I spent nearly ten of my thirty-five-year career in the British Diplomatic Service as a Private Secretary. As such, I had a bird’s eye view, or perhaps more accurately a worm’s eye view, of how government works and of how politicians work and think. I became typecast as a Private Secretary.
The Private Secretary is the person who sees more of his or her minister than anyone else outside the minister’s immediate family. Indeed, during the working week he or she may see more of the minister than the minister’s family does. For the duration of your service as a Private Secretary, you kiss goodbye to anything remotely approaching a private life. You are the first person into the minister’s office in the morning and the last one out at night. You are, though you advertise it at your peril, the last person to talk to your minister before he takes a decision and the first person to know when that decision has been taken. You are the one official in a department who can give advice to the minister entirely in private. Your advice may run counter to that of the department as a whole. If the minister accepts your view, then you have exercised more influence than your elders and betters think you have any right to do.
The Private Office, brilliantly analysed in Sir Nicholas Henderson’s book of that name, is the interface between the Secretary of State and the rest of the department, be it other ministers, or officials. In the Foreign Office, it handles all the information that comes into the Secretary of State from officials in the Foreign Office, as well as all the recommendations that those officials make in the form of written policy submissions. It is also the interface with the rest of Whitehall, handling a huge volume of policy correspondence between government departments, not just on foreign policy issues, but also on other matters which the Foreign Secretary has to deal with as a member of Cabinet.
The Private Secretaries are the people who convey the minister’s instructions, ideas, requests, and opinions to the rest of the department. It is they who will be telephoned by other officials keen to know what is on the minister’s mind, anxious to interpret his or her wishes accurately or simply to work out how to manage an instruction which may have been easier for the minister to give than for his officials to execute.
What service in a private office gives you is a unique vantage point from which to see the character and ability of your minister, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the departmental machine which serves him. It also brings you face to face with the political pressures which may determine policy, with conflicts of departmental interest, with personality differences, and, above all, with the almost inhuman workload and stress which we expect our political leaders to bear.
From 1977 to 1979, I was one of David Owen’s Private Secretaries during his time as Foreign Secretary. I dealt mostly with African issues, especially what (p.187) was then his central preoccupation: the future of Rhodesia. From 1988 to the end of 1990, I was Private Secretary to three successive Foreign Secretaries: Geoffrey Howe, John Major, and Douglas Hurd. From 1991 to 1993, I was the Foreign Office Private Secretary in Number 10 Downing Street, working for John Major in the days when there was only one such Private Secretary, handling foreign policy, defence, and Northern Ireland. From 2000 to 2004, I was Tony Blair’s senior official adviser on the EU in Downing Street, as well as Head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office.
All of those men were people of outstanding ability in very different ways. As with any profession, politics produces people of mixed abilities. But those who make it to the top are almost invariably extremely bright, exceptionally hard-working, and of superhuman stamina. They also give of their best in the national interest as they conceive it. I think that an otherwise sceptical public knows this even if it is reluctant to acknowledge it. If it did not, today’s politician would not be transformed in the public mind into tomorrow’s statesman. But I do not believe that anyone who has not experienced the life of a top politician at first hand can appreciate the relentless pressure and the constant stress which those politicians endure, in the midst of which they are expected to perform at the top of their game and to make good judgements based on careful and wise thought. The remarkable thing about the British political system is not how often it fails but how consistently well it delivers, given that senior ministers face each day the kind of pressures which few of the rest of us face ever.
David Owen would think nothing of flying to New York on the morning Concorde, going from there to Washington for a day of meetings with US Secretary of State, Cy Vance, back to London on the overnight flight from Washington (usually doing some hours’ work on the aeroplane), and then driving straight from Heathrow to the Foreign Office for a full day’s work. So, in a twenty-four-hour period, he might have worked for twenty hours. His experience as a junior doctor undoubtedly helped him and explained why he was still going strong while the rest of us wilted. Come the evening, he would take home three or four large boxes (black, not red) and work on them late into the night. At a time when his older son, Tristan, was seriously ill with leukaemia, Owen would get up in the night to tend to Tristan and put in some work on the boxes at the same time.
All ministerial days are filled from start to finish. When we were not travelling, Geoffrey Howe would often hold his first office meeting of the day at 08:00 and then have constant meetings, commitments in the House of Commons, maybe a speech or an official dinner, and get home at midnight. At which point, he would do a couple of hours’ work on the official boxes, sleep for three hours, and then start again at around 05:00.
(p.188) While John Major was Foreign Secretary, he lived during the week in one of the rooms at the top of the Foreign Office usually used by those officials (the Resident Clerks) who were on call out of hours. He might finish work in his grand Victorian office at 21:00, go to MacDonald’s for a quick hamburger, and then return to work. As Prime Minister, he would often be up, working in his bedroom, at 06:00, frequently being badgered for decisions by people like me from very early in the morning. Privacy is not a commodity available to the Prime Minister living over the shop.
Douglas Hurd never wasted a moment. If he was in a car, or on a plane, he would be working, often dictating constituency correspondence (which was dealt with by a House of Commons secretary, not the Foreign Office). Whenever he got into his official car for a journey of more than a few minutes, we would put a box of work into the car with him. He went through it swiftly but rigorously.
The diaries of Alastair Campbell portray a similar pattern for Tony Blair.
This workload, amazingly, rarely seems to produce bad health. Sheer stamina is the first quality that marks out successful politicians from lesser mortals. They are helped by a huge drip-feed of adrenalin, a potent and addictive drug. Adrenalin masks fatigue but one of its side effects can be hubris. It is not surprising that a politician such as Margaret Thatcher found that life after Number 10 was not happy. Fatigue and adrenalin can also produce bad judgements and the effects of such extreme fatigue are cumulative. That is one reason why governments do not just run out of ideas, they run out of steam.
The higher you climb in politics and government, the greater the pressures, and the more important and urgent the decisions you have to take. A senior politician needs good judgement, combined with enormous self-confidence. Margaret Thatcher decided to launch the Falklands task force when her naval advisers were still unsure of the prospects of success. John Major publicly initiated the campaign for safe havens for the Iraqi Kurds even though he was not sure he would have the backing of the United States. Tony Blair led, within minutes of them happening, the response of the Western world to the bombings of 9/11.
In each case, the Prime Minister of the day reached his or her own judgement. They led from the front. But, on top of their form, these leaders tempered their own wishes with shrewd, often instinctive, assessment of the political environment.
In his autobiography, Nigel Lawson says that recklessness characterised Margaret Thatcher’s last months in government. And it may be so. Yet anyone who reads Margaret Thatcher’s own autobiography can see the combination of robustness and care which she took in tackling the miners’ strike. There was (p.189) nothing reckless about her behaviour then. She had strong instincts about the ERM but was obliged to temper them in the face of a united front by Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson.
On one occasion, when I encouraged John Major to take some bold step over Europe, he reminded me that he was “standing astride a crack in the Conservative Party that is getting wider every day”.
Tony Blair decided, against his long-held and unchanged conviction to the contrary, to offer a referendum on the draft European Constitution because of his reading of what the domestic political situation required. That decision was taken on the eve of elections to the EP and ostensibly for related political reasons. But I doubt if he would have taken that decision had his domestic standing not taken a battering over Iraq.
In other words, all three leaders had to temper what they wanted to do to fit with what they could in practice accomplish at any one time. It sounds obvious. But it is often not predictable.
The reckless Margaret Thatcher, as observed by Nigel Lawson at the end, was recognisably the same person who, seven years earlier, had kept one of my colleagues sitting up until three in the morning in the British embassy in Rome while, over a whisky or three, she laid into the EC and all its ills. But she knew when, at Fontainebleau, she should compromise to reach an agreement with the other member governments of that same disliked Community. In other words, her European policy was shaped by strong instincts, but tempered by careful assessment of the national interest. If that care deserted her at the end, it was not just hubris. I am sure that cumulative fatigue required ever increasing doses of adrenalin and adrenalin, like other drugs, can distort judgement and undermine performance as well as enhance it.
John Major who nearly lost a vote of confidence over the Maastricht Bill was the same leader whose success in negotiating the Maastricht Treaty had been hailed by virtually every member of the Parliamentary Conservative Party only a few months before. On the face of it, he should have had more authority, having won a General Election, against the odds, in between. But he knew, as soon as the election was over, that while he had a majority of twenty-one he also had more than that number of Euro-sceptic backbenchers prepared to imperil the government for their beliefs.
Since all political parties believe that their policies are the best ones in the national interest, there is nothing cynical about the fact that most governments implicitly regard it as their first duty to stay in power if they possibly can. All governments, in my experience, seek to take decisions on an informed and rational basis in the national interest but all are subject to the pressures, (p.190) human and political, I have described. To describe the machinery and process of European decision-making is therefore to describe how, but not always why, European decisions have been taken by British governments over the last twenty-five years.
Successive British governments have used a model of decision-making on EU issues which is often envied by other member states and has been emulated by not a few. It is a model which has usually meant that if ten different British government ministers are asked by their EU opposite numbers about the British view of a particular issue, outside their own area of expertise, all ten ministers will give the same answer. This seems so obvious to anyone used to our system as to scarcely rate mention. But it is a system rooted, not just in thoroughgoing preparation on all issues but, above all, by the sharing of information.
This passion to share information with colleagues across government departments is an almost uniquely British quality. It is one of the benign consequences of a system that does not produce coalition governments in which the foreign minister from one party will not necessarily trust his fellow finance minister from another. I had constant dealings with my German opposite number in Chancellor Schroeder’s office during my four years as Tony Blair’s EU adviser. I was often told things which I was enjoined on no account to allow to fall into the hands of the Foreign Ministry. Not ours; theirs. The Germans accepted that I would, as a matter of routine and duty, brief both our embassy in Berlin and the Foreign Office in detail about what had passed between me and Schroeder’s adviser. This meant that the British ambassador in Berlin might know more about what was on the mind of the German Chancellor than did the German Foreign Minister.
The other key ingredient of the British system is coordination among officials and ministers. Ever since Britain joined the EC in 1973, the Foreign Secretary has been the senior minister responsible for the coordination of EC policy across government, reflecting the fact that the EC was seen as primarily a foreign policy responsibility as well as the fact that in Brussels it was the General Affairs Council, consisting of the foreign ministers of the member states, who were responsible for coordinating the work of other, specialist Councils, as well as for negotiating on institutional issues. Thus, every IGC on treaty change, from the SEA onwards has been negotiated, at least in theory, by the EU’s Foreign Ministers.
Every Foreign Secretary has chaired a subcommittee of the Cabinet responsible for coordinating European policy. The regularity with which the committee has met has varied over the years. But it is within the framework of that committee that differences of view among ministers on EU business are thrashed out.
(p.191) Working to the Foreign Secretary (and to the Prime Minister) is a secretariat in the Cabinet Office called the European Secretariat which, today, consists of over thirty people under the leadership of someone of Permanent Secretary rank who is also the Prime Minister’s EU adviser. Until the General Election of 2001, the Head of the European Secretariat was always a Deputy Secretary and always drawn from the Home Civil Service. And the European Secretariat was somewhat smaller than it is now.
Throughout the 1980s, there was an elaborate, formal structure of official-level committees which met regularly under the chairmanship of the European Secretariat. These committees considered papers prepared by the lead government department, according to the subject, on issues to be negotiated in Brussels and officials would try to thrash out an interdepartmentally agreed view of what Britain’s substantive position, and negotiating tactics, should be. Since much of the business of the EC was subject to unanimous voting until the passage of the SEA, substance and tactics were often one and the same that is, Britain could afford to hang tough if she so chose.
The outcome of these meetings was very often agreement between departments at official level. In that case, the officials of the lead department would make a formal recommendation to their minister based on the conclusions of the meeting. If the minister agreed, he or she would then write to ministerial colleagues recommending the course of action already discussed at official level.
If officials at working level had been unable to agree, the issue might go to a higher-level meeting, but still a meeting of officials. The most contentious and topical issues were discussed each Friday in the Cabinet Office, at a session chaired by the Head of the European Secretariat and attended by other senior officials, including the UK Permanent Representative to the EC in Brussels.
Today, the system is still recognisably the same though it has changed over the years. The hierarchy of official-level committees no longer exists. Plenty of meetings of officials from across Whitehall still take place, chaired by the Cabinet Office, but they are organised according to need; each department determines the level at which it wants to be represented and the officials in the UK Representation in Brussels no longer routinely cross the Channel to be present. They participate by a secure video conference link.
The Friday meeting, attended by the UK Permanent Representative, still takes place though not every week and its importance has diminished in recent years. This is partly because of the speed and informality of communication via e-mail, partly because of fewer fundamental disagreements across Whitehall on tactics, and partly because, on some key issues, transparent discussion between the Treasury and other government departments has been (p.192) problematic, leaving some issues for resolution between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer alone.
If tactics are less controversial than they were twenty years ago, that is down to two factors: the huge increase in EU expertise across government departments and the increasing use of QMV. In the 1980s, there were three or four government departments with day-to-day experience of negotiating in Brussels: the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Treasury. Departments such as the Home Office and the MOD had no reason to have such expertise: Brussels hardly impinged on them at all.
In the intervening period, the increase in EU involvement in the issues of environment, migration, asylum, terrorism, international crime, security, and defence has meant that virtually all government departments have had to acquire expertise in EU law and negotiation. All of them send officials to working groups where draft legislation is negotiated between the member states. All of them have had to learn how to build alliances since most of their legislation is decided by majority and they need those alliances either to create a majority to ensure the passage of laws or to forge a blocking minority to prevent their adoption.
This same combination of factors has reduced the direct involvement of Britain’s embassies in EU countries in the resolution of EU business. Our embassies still play a part in lobbying on behalf of the government on EU issues. Britain does more of such lobbying than any other member state. When I was British ambassador in Lisbon from 1993 to 1995, we found that, quite often, our lobbying alerted the Portuguese government to some esoteric issue on which their attention had not hitherto alighted. Unfortunately, their gratitude to Britain for alerting them to the matter did not always result in their deciding to vote on the same side. Our embassies lobby effectively on behalf of the British position. They also offer to British ministers an insight into the domestic economic and political factors which underlie the position of their host government. But negotiation as such takes place in Brussels or through the ministers and officials in the Whitehall department concerned telephoning their opposite numbers across the EU and thrashing things out directly. The evolution of English as the second language of most European Ministers and officials has made this much easier.
It is still down to the Foreign Secretary, as chairman of the European Committee of Cabinet, to sum up interministerial correspondence on a particular EU issue, to try to adjudicate where there is disagreement, and to chair a meeting of the committee where his word alone is not enough to resolve a dispute. Jack Straw made particularly good use of the committee when Britain was faced with an interpretation by the ECJ of the Working Time Directive (p.193) that risked driving a coach and horses through the government’s policy on the working hours of doctors. He used the committee to alert other departmental ministers to the problem, to generate defensive action across government, and to organise a lobbying campaign which, even by British standards, was on an unprecedented scale.
The continuing importance of the Foreign Secretary as interministerial coordinator of government policy on Europe in London has not been matched by the role of foreign ministers collectively in Brussels. At one level, their workload has increased as the EU has developed its foreign policy and, increasingly, its security and defence policy. But the foreign ministers, even though they still meet as the General Affairs Council, cannot claim any role either as coordinator or court of appeal. The work of the numerous specialist councils, dealing with agriculture, fisheries, environment, competition, industry, justice and home affairs, transport, energy, and finance, is too detailed for foreign ministers to have time to master it. Nor are the ministers in those specialist councils ready to accept the superior jurisdiction of foreign ministers. The only example I can recall of the General Affairs Council successfully intervening in the affairs of another Council was when the Dutch EU Presidency in 1997 contrived with some difficulty to get the issue of leg-hold traps taken from the agenda of the Environment Council and put on that of the foreign ministers. Environment ministers, understandably given the cruelty of leg-hold traps as a means of trapping animals killed for their fur, wanted to impose a ban on the import of fur from animals caught by such traps. Such action would have launched a trade war between the EU on the one hand and the United States, Canada, and Russia on the other. Foreign ministers decided that EU interests would suffer disproportionately if the ban were imposed by the EU alone.
The decline in importance of the General Affairs Council has also undermined the prestige and significance of the COREPER. This committee of Permanent Representatives meets weekly in two formations: COREPER I and COREPER II. This being the EU, COREPER II consists of the Permanent Representatives and COREPER I their deputies. This allegedly led, during one Italian Presidency when members of both COREPER formations were on an official visit to Sicily, to the deputies being lodged in five star comfort while the ambassadors were housed in a local pensione. Maybe this was symbolic because it is the ambassador-level committee which has declined more noticeably in significance. The two formations of COREPER divide the work of the Council of Ministers between them but it is COREPER I that deals with most of the substantive EU legislation on issues such as energy, environment, and transport.
Draft legislation, introduced by the Commission, who retain the sole right of legislative initiative under EU law, goes first to working groups where (p.194) middle-ranking officials from all the member states try to hammer out agreement on the text before them. They may refer the matter up for guidance from COREPER several times before the issue comes substantively to the COREPER agenda in the hope that, at that level, the remaining difficulties can either be ironed out, or narrowed down so that ministers in the Council have only a few key points of difference to resolve. Therein lies COREPER’s importance: it is the point at which, in all but formality (since only the Council of Ministers can actually vote), most issues get resolved. It is also the body regularly charged by ministers with sorting things out when the politicians find that they cannot after all resolve outstanding differences. Unfortunately for the Permanent Representatives, however, on almost all the issues for which they are responsible (Foreign and Security policy, Justice and Home Affairs, the work of the EU Finance Ministers) the primacy of “their” COREPER is challenged by other senior-level committees which in practice do much of the work before matters reach ministerial level in the Council.
This trend was evident during my time as the UK Permanent Representative from 1995 to 2000 and has continued. A senior committee (the Political and Security Committee) now meets full-time in Brussels to discuss foreign policy and security issues. It has replaced the occasional meetings of Political Directors who would fly into Brussels ahead of the meetings of foreign ministers but were not necessarily in the right place when a crisis blew up. That development has meant, in turn, that most member states now send as their representatives on the committee people of ambassadorial rank. In some cases, those ambassadors are not subordinate to the Permanent Representative or disposed, therefore, to seek guidance from him or her. This is not the case in the British Permanent Representation and the job of Permanent Representative remains a hugely important one. It is simply that the focus of activity of the Perm Reps, as they are known, is no longer centred on the weekly meetings of COREPER with the same intensity it once was. The main exception to that is the negotiation of treaty changes in an IGC where, in practice, it is the ambassadorial members of COREPER who do most of the negotiating spade work.
By contrast, COREPER I (the deputy heads of the Permanent Representations) deals with the bulk of legislation in the fields of industry, the single market, and environment, all of which is decided by QMV and all of it subject to co-decision with the EP. As a negotiating forum, COREPER I is more demanding than COREPER II, has a huge schedule of late-night negotiations, and spends much of its time in exhausting, but politically challenging, negotiation with the EP.
What to do about the decline of the General Affairs Council is one of the hardy annuals of Brussels debate. One idea, frequently floated, usually (p.195) by Europe Ministers, is to have a committee of ministers (Europe Ministers, needless to say) meeting virtually full time in Brussels. The problem with this idea is that it is most unlikely that those ministers would be empowered to take the decisions now taken by their senior colleagues, the foreign ministers. So they would end up becoming an over-graded COREPER doing work which is essentially suited to civil servants, not politicians. For, contrary to the mythology, decisions are not taken by COREPER members, winging it with no political control. Anyone who negotiates in COREPER does so under political instructions from their government. If you are lucky, you will either be given, or manage to carve out, sufficient tactical flexibility to enable you to duck and weave to secure the result your government wants. But the outcome you are aiming for is one that, ultimately, has been set by ministers. What the Whitehall system described in this chapter does give to the UK Permanent Representative is the opportunity to make an input to each phase of the process by which policy is set. In that sense, the UK Representation, whose 130 or so UK staff are drawn from every government department, is unlike most bilateral embassies whose input to policy is less intravenous.
So, in essence, the system continues in Brussels as it has always done. But all Permanent Representatives from all member states have found that it is more difficult for them than it used to be to be regarded in their home capital as the representative of the government as a whole, rather than as that of the foreign ministry. In their turn, the foreign ministers have found that their clout, outside the field of foreign policy, is strictly limited. As a result, the role of the Heads of Government, meeting at least four times a year in the European Council, has grown. The European Council spends some of its time setting the strategic direction of the EU and even more as the final court of appeal (and therefore the forum of negotiation) for issues which cannot be resolved lower down.
Not surprisingly, the role of the offices of Heads of Government has grown too. Most EU Heads of Government have a (usually quite small) team of people in their office dealing full-time with EU issues. Any Presidency trying to put together a deal in a difficult negotiation will negotiate with the representatives of the Head of Government from the problem countries, as well as continue the more formal negotiations in COREPER.
In Britain, some see the development, under Tony Blair, of EU and foreign policy teams in Number 10 Downing Street as somewhat sinister. They fear that, if the Prime Minister of the day has an independent capacity in EU and foreign policy, the role of the Foreign Secretary and of Cabinet government will be undermined.
Tony Blair did not invent, he inherited, the long-standing system whereby there are two “foreign” secretariats in the Cabinet Office: the European (p.196) Secretariat, responsible for coordinating EU policy across Whitehall, and the Overseas and Defence Secretariat, responsible for servicing the Overseas and Defence Policy Committee of the Cabinet (a committee traditionally chaired by the Prime Minister of the day) and for coordinating foreign and defence policy issues likely to come to that committee.
When I first started dealing with EC business in the Foreign Office in 1983, the Head of the European Secretariat was David Williamson, a Deputy Secretary on secondment from the Ministry of Agriculture. In her autobiography, Margaret Thatcher describes Williamson as “perhaps the mainstay” of the “truly superb official team” she had to help her. Twenty years later, I did the same job as Williamson, albeit less competently, but sitting in a grand office in Number 10 Downing Street and with the even grander title of Permanent Secretary to go with it. But the job was exactly the same job and my real influence and importance no different from that exercised by Williamson. If anything, my efficiency was marginally diminished when I moved from the Cabinet Office itself into Downing Street because I became physically removed from the team I headed. Over the years, the influence of the European Secretariat and its head, and their closeness to the Prime Minister of the day, has depended more on the personalities involved, on both sides, than on the character of the structures.
The Foreign Policy team which was set up by Tony Blair in Number 10, also under the direction of an official of Permanent Secretary rank, was somewhat different. When I was John Major’s Private Secretary in Downing Street, I was one of a long line of Foreign Officials who had filled the job of Foreign Policy Private Secretary to successive Prime Ministers. My immediate predecessor, Charles Powell, had done the job under Margaret Thatcher for an unprecedented seven years and, because of his extraordinary ability and stamina and his closeness to Margaret Thatcher who led from the front more than is habitual even for Prime Ministers, had become a powerful figure, resented by some in the Foreign Office. But the system was designed so that, however able, ambitious, and needless of sleep, the person concerned was just one person working a minimum of sixteen hours a day and usually at weekends. When I did the job, it would range from drafting a letter from John Major to a police widow in Belfast whose pension payment had gone awry (for the Foreign Policy Private Secretary was responsible for Defence and Northern Ireland too), to speaking to the US National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, at midnight on the secure telephone to discuss the next day’s bombing raid on Saddam Hussein’s missile sites in Iraq, to briefing John Major before every meeting he had with an overseas visitor, to taking and disseminating the record of each of those same meetings. There was no way I could substitute for the Foreign Secretary or the Foreign Office, even if I had wished to do so. (p.197) I could not have provided the service the Prime Minister required without the policy and practical input which I received from the Foreign Office, MOD, and Northern Ireland Office hour-by-hour every day. But the system placed a huge burden on one person. My family paid a higher price than I had any right to demand.
It was no more than common sense therefore for the Prime Minister to have a small team dealing with foreign policy rather than a one-man band. The team in Downing Street depended as critically on input from the Foreign Office and the MOD as their predecessors did. What is also true, however, as I have heard Douglas Hurd argue, is that the team, headed by an official who was as senior as the most senior official in the Foreign Office, had a greater capacity for independent origination of ideas, for negotiation on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and for implementation of policy than existed before. The risk in this lay not in the structures themselves but in how they were used within the overall framework of Cabinet government. The Foreign Policy team in Number 10 was a product of Tony Blair’s working methods, not the cause of them. I believe it to be in the interests of good government to have a foreign policy team in Number 10 that is not quite as potent as the one created by Tony Blair. But it would be a mistake, in terms of the efficiency of the Prime Minister’s office, to go back to the system as it was before Tony Blair took office.
The structures of Cabinet government, if fully used, offer protection against bad decisions for, if a policy paper goes to Cabinet Ministers forty-eight hours before the meeting, there is a good chance that members of the Cabinet who are not directly involved in the subject, will have time to read and reflect and bring their political wisdom and experience to bear. It is not a foolproof system. Cabinet, after all, backed Suez. But Cabinet also pulled the plug on the expedition. Would Eden otherwise have continued on a potentially disastrous course?
It was opinion in Cabinet, as well as the advice of the Defence Chiefs on the huge military risks, that led John Major to avoid direct military engagement in Bosnia. Given the advice of the Chiefs at the time that the war could not be won from the air and that a huge commitment of ground troops would be needed, with a very uncertain prospect of winning, the decision was exactly the one Cabinet was designed to take: cautious perhaps but placing weight on the balance between Britain’s desire to stop bloodshed in the Balkans on the one hand and the responsibility of ministers to safeguard British lives on the other. It was also frequent debate in Cabinet that enabled John Major to keep the Euro-sceptic members on side because they were given the chance to air their views and, even more importantly, to appreciate that those views were not shared by the majority of Cabinet members.
(p.198) Much of the time, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are called on to make judgements in EU negotiations without benefit of immediate Cabinet advice and without the time to consult. For it is the two of them who are alone at the table in meetings of the European Council when crucial decisions come to be taken. And once the conclusions of the meeting are finalised, there is no going back. The Presidency will not change what has been agreed because a particular Head of Government did not grasp the point at issue at the time.
The membership of the European Council (Heads of State or Government and Foreign Ministers) is laid down by treaty. Largely because the British insisted, finance ministers are sometimes admitted when their business is at issue. And in 1999, under the first Finnish Presidency of the EU, interior ministers were admitted since it was their business that was under discussion though, in the British case, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook occupied the second UK seat throughout while the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, waited, with commendable patience, outside the room.
A British Prime Minister will have established the framework of Cabinet tolerance within which he or she is operating. Before the Maastricht European Council in 1992, John Major had set out his negotiating stance in detail before the House of Commons in advance in order to ensure that he had political cover. Even so, it was up to him to decide, on the spot, whether or not to accept the Social Chapter which was about to be agreed by the other eleven member states and which was problematic for him. I think it most unlikely that John Major would have accepted the text on the table in any circumstances. But a variant of the Social Chapter, acceptable to the UK, was not inconceivable. Indeed, the officials of the Department of Employment had drafted just such a text some time before. What constrained John Major’s negotiating room, his own instincts apart, were the frequent and insistent telephone calls from London from the Employment Secretary, Michael Howard, who made it plain, without ever using the word so far as I know, that this was a potential resigning matter for him.
At Fontainebleau, in 1984, Margaret Thatcher had to decide whether or not to accept the deal on the British budget rebate that was then on the table. She, and ultimately she alone, took the decision that the time had come to settle, even though she knew that Treasury officials wanted her to hold out for more. For her, the key point was that she had the support of Geoffrey Howe, former Chancellor as well as current Foreign Secretary. And, in the event, she had the support of her current Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, although she did not consult Lawson before taking the decision to settle.
Tony Blair had to make a similar judgement when, during the UK Presidency of the EU in 2005, it fell to him to negotiate a budget settlement for the (p.199) EU as a whole, while also getting a good deal for the UK on the level of the British rebate, then under attack by all the other member states. Tony Blair had to make a judgement on the level at which to settle, despite the wish of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to hold out beyond the British Presidency and despite the reticence of his two Foreign Office ministers, Jack Straw and Douglas Alexander, about the kind of deal he was prepared to do. He made his own judgement, calculating, correctly I believe, that he might well not get a better deal later and that, in the meantime, Britain would be held responsible for plunging the EU into a crisis, in which Britain’s good and privileged relationship with the new member states from Eastern and Central Europe would have been damaged.
So, the Prime Minister has to calculate what is best for Britain in the circumstances, as well as what he or she can sell back home to the rest of the Cabinet, to Parliament, and to the Press. So long as the Prime Minister is the unchallenged instrument of electoral success for the Party, he or she is likely to be given considerable leeway. Margaret Thatcher’s intemperate comments in the House of Commons in October 1990 and her outright hostility to EMU might, in any circumstances, have provoked the resignation of Geoffrey Howe. They would not necessarily have provoked a leadership challenge but for the much more serious erosion of the government’s popularity caused by the poll tax.
The formation of policy advice by civil servants is governed first of all by the declared policy of the governing party. This seems too self-evident to need saying. But political parties coming to power after a long time in opposition, as Labour did in 1964 and 1997, genuinely believe that the Civil Service has been hijacked by their predecessors over such a long period in office. In 1996, Robin Cook told the then Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign Office, John Coles, that when Labour won the election, I was to lose my job as UK Permanent Representative to the EU. The first I knew was when I read of my forthcoming demise in a British newspaper. Robin Cook’s reasoning was that I had been too close to John Major and would be unable to articulate the new government’s new approach to Europe. Very soon, Robin Cook realised that I, along with all other civil servants, would work loyally for the new government, as we had done for the old. Robin Cook may have been surprised that I could work for him, having been John Major’s Private Secretary and having been appointed by Major to Brussels. His surprise would have been as nothing compared with John Major’s shock had I told him that I did not think I could work for a Labour government. John Major rightly expected that, whatever my feelings of affection for him, and they were and are strong, it was my duty as a civil servant loyally to serve the government of the day. There are civil servants who are lifelong voters for one or other political party. Most are, however, little (p.200) different from the rest of the population. In 1964, when Labour returned to power after thirteen years in opposition, roughly the same proportion of civil servants voted for the Labour Party as the proportion of the population as a whole. This was despite the belief of the Labour Party that the Civil Service had become the creature of the Tory Party.
Civil Servants are also imbued with the ethos of their parent department about Europe, as about other things. It is undoubtedly true that the Foreign Office has, since the 1960s, been a “pro-European” department. The lessons from the judgements made in the 1950s, when Foreign Office officials made the same judgements as their political masters about the significance of the establishment of the EC, were learned and passed on to successor generations. That tradition is now being tested by the Foreign Office’s nervousness at the implications for national policymaking of the EU’s CFSP.
The Foreign Office view was also born of experience, not of “going native” but of realising the significance of the EC for British interests and the need therefore to negotiate from within, rather than carp from the sidelines. This pro-Europeanism is, I would argue, no more than sensible realism. In the same sense, the Ministry of Agriculture could also be said to be a pro-European department because, from the beginning of our membership, it has had to work with the fact that most of Britain’s agricultural practices are set by negotiation in Brussels.
In general, however, one feature that is common to most Whitehall departments, and which goes wider and deeper than their individual ethos, is an instinctive dislike of EU legislation.
“No unless” is the common response of Whitehall departments to a piece of proposed EU legislation, compared to the “yes if” reaction of most of our partners. In this, officials are undoubtedly responding to successive ministers, of both main parties, who have been nervous of the domestic political reaction to legislation originating in Brussels. But they readily share that suspicion. They do not have to be taught it. It is rooted in our national psyche, the psyche of an island nation which has lived by resisting Continental encroachment; whose sixteenth-century Reformation was about politics as well as worship; which fought against the very countries who are now our partners to establish its imperial supremacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; which did do something remarkable for European liberty in 1940, and which, unlike much of the rest of Europe, emerged from war in 1945 with its pride in its national institutions enhanced. However flawed it may have often been in practice, England was the model of liberal political philosophy until the newly born United States of America took on the mantle in the late eighteenth century. Margaret Thatcher’s claim that, in her lifetime, all the problems of the world had come from Continental Europe and all the solutions from the (p.201) English-speaking world, was a characteristically insensitive expression of a view probably held by a large proportion of her fellow countrymen.
The other determining factor in Whitehall’s view of the EU is the political instinct of a Department’s Secretary of State and, even more importantly, the views of the Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher’s instincts about Europe, and therefore about majority voting, political union, the single currency, and European defence were the main determinants of the government’s policy. As has been shown earlier in this book, some of those instinctive reactions might occasionally be challenged by the Foreign Secretary but a head-on confrontation was rare. The process of persuading Mrs Thatcher that some movement to majority voting might be in Britain’s interest if we wanted to see the completion of the Single Market took months of subtle effort by Geoffrey Howe and by officials. The same is true of the efforts made by Lawson and Howe, and later by Hurd and Major, to persuade her of the merits of joining the ERM. No Prime Minister can go against the strongly held views of a majority in the Cabinet. But equally, it takes a very determined group of politicians within the Cabinet to persuade a Prime Minister to do something he or she does not like. If, as in Margaret Thatcher’s case, the position, in this case on Europe, sits well with public opinion, then the task is that much harder. And in Margaret Thatcher’s case, she formed public opinion as well as being influenced by it.
While I was working in Downing Street for John Major, I helped a young academic who was writing a doctoral thesis on the SEA. His work was brilliant. But it advanced logical reasons, often based on theories of foreign policy, for all of the negotiating positions that the British government had taken. I had to tell him that, as often as not, we had taken a particular view because the Prime Minister had expressed a forthright opinion that had immediately become holy writ. In due course, my friend joined the Diplomatic Service and we later worked companionably together on European issues. He soon saw how rich a mixture of the systematic, logical, rational, instinctive, personal, reasonable, and sometimes unreasonable, went into the process of policymaking.
The final piece in the jigsaw of European policymaking in London is implementation: how the policy decisions of ministers are carried out. The systematic way in which policy is considered, and recommendations on it are approved, means not just that all ministers are likely to sing the same song from the same song sheet, but that they and their officials will not dare to depart from it. There are factors at play here that have a lot to do with the pressures of public, parliamentary, and press opinion and those are looked at in the last chapter. Whatever the causes, it is probably true that, until Spain joined the EC, Britain was seen by her partners as the most bloody-minded member state; the member state least likely to compromise on its national interests.
(p.202) We have already seen how Britain is more systematic and rigorous in lobbying other member states on EU issues than any of its partners. The amount of effort which the UK Representation in Brussels puts into keeping alongside the Commission and the EP certainly exceeds that of most other member governments. Before each week’s meeting of the European Commission, the British Commissioner’s office, his cabinet, will receive written briefing from the UK Representation on issues on the agenda that are of concern to the UK government. Britain is not unique in doing this but is particularly assiduous in providing such briefing. The same procedure applies to MEPs. The British members are all entitled to, and receive, written briefing on the British government’s position on the legislation before them. This written briefing, prepared by departments in London, goes to British MEPs regardless of Party. When I first arrived in Brussels as the UK Permanent Representative in 1995 under a Conservative government, Conservative MEPs were heavily outnumbered by Labour ones, who made a point of telling me how much they valued the British government’s briefing because they immediately knew which way to vote: the opposite of what the government was recommending. Today’s MEPs of all main parties are more sensitive to the national interest and more inclined to look at issues on their merits, helped by the fact that Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour policy on EU economic issues does not these days differ greatly.
The large member states, Britain included, can obviously devote more resources to following EU issues than can the smaller member states. So it is not so much that we British care more passionately on particular issues than our partners. But we do care more passionately about more of them than do most of our partners. The Portuguese, for example, will fight like tigers where their textile interests are concerned but there are a lot of issues where, if they do not consider a vital national interest to be at stake, they will follow the Commission’s lead, with an instinctive tendency to vote in favour of a Commission proposal. Our instinctive tendency is to be suspicious of Commission initiatives. Even where those initiatives respond to our interests, for example, over the single market in financial services for which Britain campaigned long and hard, we will take huge trouble to ensure that the detail is absolutely right from the British perspective.
This habit reflects in turn the seriousness with which Britain takes its EU obligations. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s Britain, along with Denmark, was the member state which had the best record of faithful implementation of EC law. Our record is still one of the best, though others are more assiduous, and we are deliberately less conscientious, than in the past. Our system of transcribing EU law into domestic law partly accounts for our rigour. To implement EU law usually involves amending an existing statute, (p.203) and Parliament’s legal draftsmen are punctilious. The extent to which Britain is also more prone to “goldplate” EU legislation by using it as an opportunity to introduce domestic regulation and blame it on Brussels has achieved the status of urban myth. Successive studies have shown some evidence of it but not nearly as much as claimed by British business, which cannot always produce the evidence to support its complaints.
Whether Britain is more assiduous, not just in carrying EU legislation into law, but in enforcing it thereafter is another sore issue. There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence about the blind eye turned by the authorities in some member states to breaches of EU law. But the evidence of the annual reports of the Court of Auditors suggests that no member state is immune from the desire of quick-minded people to get round the system. The story of the same flock of sheep being driven from one farm to another to collect sheep premium is told of every EU country where sheep are bred. What is true is that Britain has a highly developed society of special interest, consumer, and other lobby groups who do not hesitate to complain to the European Commission if they see evidence of breaches of EU law. The Commission cannot ignore those complaints and it sometimes happens that Britain is the first country to be taken to the European Court for offences which may in practice be more widespread in other member states. Part of the answer should lie in the Commission having more enforcement staff. But, not least because of the widespread view in Britain that the Commission bureaucracy is already huge, the British have been among those governments least willing to increase the Commission’s staffing budget.
Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Tony Blair all had different techniques for getting their way. One of the reasons they, other British ministers, and their officials had to be tougher than anyone else was because Britain has found herself fighting alone on more issues than any other member state in the last twenty years. Did they inevitably find themselves alone or did they needlessly isolate themselves? That is a question for the final chapter.