Murnaghan 12.05.13 Interview with Sir Nigel Sheinwald, former UK Ambassador to the US

May 12, 2013


DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now then, the Prime Minister will fly to the United States this evening to meet President Obama. Britain of course is a key ally for America but would that still be the case if we actually did pull out of the European Union? Well the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has said this morning that he would vote to quit the Union if he were voting now. In a moment I’ll be speaking to the former Defence Secretary Liam Fox but I’m joined now by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, he was Britain’s last Ambassador to Washington and before that he was Tony Blair’s foreign policy advisor and the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union. Sir Nigel, very good to talk to you and you are uniquely qualified to talk about both sides of the Atlantic. First of all, what will Mr Obama and his people’s view be about this current, it seems, ferment about the European Union and membership of it taking place in the UK?

SIR NIGEL SHEINWALD: Well I think they are pretty concerned about it and a few months ago, just after the Prime Minister’s speech, the White House did take the rather unusual step of saying that the President had raised it with the Prime Minister and I think they are worried about it for a couple of reasons. The first reason is they like Britain being influential in Europe because we are internationally active, responsible and we have a pro-NATO Atlanticist position. They want that to be as much as possible the European position and on business and finance and the economy, America is our number one investor in this country and a lot of American firms have come here because we are a gateway to the single market of the European Union and they would be worried if we lost that and our access, and their access to the European market were imperilled. They like our open trade and our flexible economy voice in European discussions. They are not saying that they would not be our allies if we left the European Union but they are saying that we would be of less value internationally to them and to other partners if were to leave because it would be a diminishing decision for the UK in terms of our international impact and standing.

DM: Would they throw their weight around on this? Do you think we would ever hear those kind of words passed from President Obama’s lips?

NS: I don't think you’d hear it as explicitly as that but they’ve made clear they want to see a strong European Union and they think the European Union itself would be weaker if the UK weren’t part of this so they’re not going to get involved in the detail of our politics and the day to day debates between our parties or within our parties but they make very clear what’s in their interest. Now we’ve got to judge this in the British interest, not what’s in the American interests. We’ve got to decide this because out of what’s important economically for this country and how we improve our political security, economic chances in this very difficult and competitive world environment.

DM: Also passing between them must be some discussion about Syria, given that the Prime Minister has just been to Moscow to meet President Putin. Do you think the Prime Minister may be in a position to bring those two differing view together between the United States and Russia, somehow acting as a broker here?

NS: I think that what he wants to do is inject some urgency and for their different reasons, both Russia and America, they haven’t been standing back, the Americans certainly haven’t been doing that but they have been incredibly cautious throughout this very, very difficult period over the last couple of years when the rebellion has been going on in Syria. I think he wants to get much more urgently looked at the prospect for some sort of political conference, it seems very early for that given the fact that the situation on the ground in Syria is deteriorating, that if anything Assad is digging in rather than showing signs of making concessions but ultimately that’s the way it’s going to be settled, politically around some sort of negotiating table, that’s number one but number two, the pressure that would be derived from being more open to arming of the opposition, at least keeping that option on the table which is what France and Britain have been talking about, that’s something that I’m sure President Obama is thinking about but he has been incredibly cautious about it so far.

DM: But that’s as far as Obama will go? He has had his red lines it seems have been trampled all over about whether or not chemical weapons have been used. We’ve seen during the course of his presidency’s that he is rather reluctant to commit American forces to any kind of ground or aerial activity.

NS: I think it is impossible to imagine that any British or American forces on the ground would be deployed, I don't think that’s the issue. The issue is whether, I think the immediate issues are about greater help, including military help, for the opposition, whether there are some safe zones that could be established particularly with the help of the Turkish government, the Turkish Prime Minister will also be in Washington this week and they have just had this incident on their border overnight. So I think it’s a question of turning up the pressure, seeing whether that yields some dividend and whether you can take the Russians along with you and obviously the reason why John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, alighted on this idea of a new political conference is it might be a way of pulling the Russians into an international effort from which they have stood apart so far.

DM: Let me bring us back to the EU debate here and tap into your expertise, your knowledge of what goes on in Continental Europe. How do you think they are viewing these discussions at the moment in Berlin, in Paris, in Brussels? Do they think that we have reached the point in the UK where we really might just end up leaving the EU?

NS: Well they see that it’s a possibility really for the first time. We’ve had this debate in Britain arguably ever since we first started talking about joining the then European Community in the 1950s and then in the 60s and 70s, so this isn’t a completely new debate but it has reached a new stage because there is the possibility of a second referendum in very, very difficult circumstances from the 1970s so there is a pathway to a decision for the UK to leave which there wasn’t before and clearly on the right of our politics there is a ferment about the right way to approach it, so they see that, they don’t see it as inevitable but it is now at the very, very least a possibility and I think there may be two reactions to that. The first reaction is it is not what is most on our plate in the eurozone at the moment, they are concentrating on their own very significant political and economic decisions, that’s the priority for them but secondly, they are worried, I think all current members of the European Union including the ones in the eurozone, are worried about the prospect of the UK leaving. They don’t want it to happen, they will do something to keep us in if there is a renegotiation after the next election but they won’t do anything which fundamentally challenges their own political and economic priorities.

DM: On that, is there a frustration, would they make room in reality for substantive renegotiations to take place when we are only one member of the club?

NS: It depends what’s going on in Europe at the time. I think at the moment they’re not in the mood, the eurozone members are not in the mood for a big constitutional change, another wave of big treaty change, that’s not what’s on their minds. They want to get on with the economic and financial decisions which are the priority but that could change. After the European parliament elections next year, if the eurozone needs more political change then it is possible that will change but the key thing is, if there is a renegotiation, we have to calibrate our ask very carefully. It mustn’t cross their red lines, it mustn’t unravel the single market, it mustn’t make their management of the eurozone impossible, so that’s what we have to bear in mind. There will be a willingness on their part and a desire on their part, as Angela Merkel has said and as others have said, to try to keep us in. This will be an existential issue for them just as it would be for us if we go into a referendum so they’d want to be helpful but there will be limits and the exact situation will depend on where the eurozone is economically in a few years’ time.

DM: Well Sir Nigel, thank you very much indeed for your insight there. Sir Nigel Sheinwald there.

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