View from London: A foreign policy focus

Renewed focus on foreign policy responses on migration following Valetta and Paris attacks brings London back into the picture

Last week’s Valetta summit was not big news in the UK. Coverage of the refugee crisis in general has dwindled this month, and last week, Cameron’s UK renegotiation speech to Chatham House was the major Europe-themed headline.

Nevertheless David Cameron did attend the Valetta Summit on migration with EU and African Union states and an informal meeting of heads of state and government also took place alongside it. The UK government has kept itself very separate from the general EU response to the refugee crisis, opting out last year from further search and rescue operations when Mare Nostrum came to an end in autumn 2014 because of the risk as it perceived it of this acting as a ‘pull factor’ for migrants to cross the Mediterranean, and then again opting of taking part in the relocation agreement of 160,000 refugees who arrived in Greece and Italy this year.

But what the UK does buy in to is the need to take part in a pan-European response to the refugee crisis is on the foreign policy response to the refugee crisis. Indeed, tellingly, although around Europe the policy lead on the refugee crisis sits largely within interior ministries, in the UK the Foreign and Commonwealth Office plays a strong role. And many of the issues on the table at Valetta formed part of the UK’s priorities within the foreign policy dimension of the migration crisis – including increasing capacity for processing in central Africa, a trust fund to contribute towards creating economic conditions conducive to potential migrants wanting to stay (and indeed encouraging African governments to accept returns), instability in Libya and the surrounding region, and a new deal with Turkey – including financial support.

London will shortly be hosting a meeting under the Khartoum process which is cited in the Valetta conclusions as one of the official mechanisms to oversee actions in the Valetta action plan. Alongside France, Germany, Italy the UK is one of the few EU states listed as taking forward specific Khartoum initiatives –  in relation to training in refugee camps in Ethiopia (with whom a deal on a migration partnership was also signed in Valetta).

So given all these linkages to the UK agenda, why was there so little interest in the UK media in Valetta? The answer may lie in the fact that the public and media saw through the rhetoric around European governments doubling down on efforts to pull together a foreign policy aspect to the refugee crisis response in general: there was so little substance to it. The simple reality is that very little diplomatic energy has been devoted to this aspect compared to the airtime on handling arrivals within Europe.

This picture changed again with the horrific attacks in Paris last Friday – which has dominated UK coverage over the weekend. As news of the attacks came in, the dreadful realisation dawned that the type of terrorism that many of the refugees from the Middle East were fleeing is now part of our reality in Europe, and that the foreign policy response to the root causes of both the refugee crisis and the radicalising narrative of the IS has been put on the back burner for too long.

The deal at the Syria talks in Vienna over the weekend was in part testament to this changed reality. The statements that David Cameron has made at the G20 in Turkey in talks with Putin, where he admitted that hasn’t managed to make the case sufficiently for plans on supporting a transitional process in Syria within the UK parliament, also indicate this renewed impetus. As events unfold this week, it remains to be seen how this translates into action.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, European Power programme

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