A new British government has finally now been formed after days of
cross-party wrangling and William Hague has been appointed Foreign Secretary. But
what will the government’s foreign policy be like and how will it handle
relations with Europe? Will it lead to the kind of rupture normally only
promised by French presidents, or will they adopt a middle-of-the-road
position? Until David Cameron and Nick Clegg shook hands on the first coalition
government in 70-odd years, there were many who thought that their differences
would be too great to bridge. On Europe, the parties are miles apart: Nick
Clegg used to work for the European Commission and was an MEP, while the Tory
party is arguably more eurosceptic now than it has ever been.
Internationally, too, there are differences in policy and tone. Like all
large British parties, the Lib Dems and the Tories cover a range of diplomatic
viewpoints. Inside the Conservative Party there are pro-Israel and pro-Arab
MPs. Inside the Lib Dems there are activists who favour NATO and those who
emphasise the EU. There are those who want to disarm unilaterally and those who
think such a policy would be madness. But on the on the whole, the Lib Dems are
more multi-lateralists whereas the Tories are more mini-lateralist. Ask a Conservative
MP what the greatest international threat is, and he or she is likely to put
Iran’s nuclear programme near or at the top of any list. Liberal Democrats are
more likely to say the United States – or even mutter darkly about the
But despite differences between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems,
their two leaders are intent on emphasising common rather than contested
ground. Where they can, they have sought to agree. There is for example a great
deal of agreement between the two parties on international aid. Both parties
are committed to reaching the target of spending 0.7 percent of GDP on overseas
aid and keeping DFID as a separate ministry. They disagree on details, such as
how much ODA money can be spent by other departments, but these are details
that can be worked out.
Where the two parties do not share views, they have either traded one
policy for another, or agreed to give their MPs a free vote when legislation is
involved. This has for example meant that the Tory policy on inheritance tax
has been taken off the table alongside the Lib Dem position on a ‘mansion’ tax.
On Europe, the cross-party agreement seems to be to freeze-frame the issue
entirely; the Lib Dems will not push Britain towards Europe and the Tories will
refrain from pulling the country away from the EU. Details will then have to be
worked out on a case-by-case basis.
It is of course not insignificant that the government’s key
international positions – that of Foreign Secretary and that of Defence
Secretary – have gone to William Hague and Liam Fox. From this, it could be
assumed that the Tories, rather than the Lib Dems, will set the tone for
Britain’s foreign policy. Yet counting ministers may be the wrong way to
understand the future workings of the Cameron-Clegg government; for if the talk
of a new kind of partnership politics is to be believed – and the bonhomie of
their first joint press conference suggests it should be – decisions will be
taken as collegially as possible. Significant foreign policy overtures will
presumably have to be cleared by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, sitting around
the table in the new National Security Council. To help them along, Prime
Minster Cameron has appointed the Foreign Office’s senior official, Sir Peter
Ricketts, who is well-respected by leaders in both governing parties.
In the end, the glue that will keep David Cameron and Nick Clegg together
is the task of addressing Britain’s economic situation, their No 1 priority. The
same adhesive will ensure that domestic, rather than foreign issues take
precedence. And it will ensure that the British government avoids provoking an
international dust-up. Nobody wants a fight either with Europe or Russia. After
an extraordinary election and a ground-breaking coalition, it seems that British
foreign policy will still be based on what it has for a long time been based
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.