Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
The latest European Council leaders’ summit was unusual because, for once, Brexit was not the only subject the media wanted to discuss as I faced the cameras and assembled newspaper journalists in the cavernous European Council press hall.
Russia and US trade tariffs were also on the agenda and, when Brexit did come up, reporters focused on the positive news that was emerging – the agreement of a transition and implementation period as well as the EU27’s decision to open negotiations on its future relationship with the UK.
At the start of the year, many seasoned commentators were suggesting that such progress was unlikely. They were wrong. We still have a long way to go to reach the final agreement, but we can now move on from the sometimes acrimonious process of disentangling ourselves from 40 years of EU membership and begin shaping a new, outward looking Britain.
While I was enjoying unexpectedly less pointed interviews, Theresa May was pulling off a diplomatic coup by securing unprecedented support from EU leaders for her tough stance against Vladimir Putin. A few days beforehand the Government had announced the expulsion of 26 Russian diplomats in response to the Salisbury nerve agent attack and she was now urging the EU to draw a line in the sand by presenting a united front to Putin’s aggression.
The Prime Minister persuaded the Council to toughen up its summit conclusions, strengthening an expression of “unqualified solidarity” with Britain to include a specific mention of “the consequences to be drawn in the light of the answers provided by the Russian authorities.” Those consequences became clear a few days later as a majority of EU countries joined in the co-ordinated international expulsion of Russian diplomats.
This extraordinary solidarity sent a strong signal to Moscow and once again highlighted Britain’s influential role on the international stage. It has also brought into focus the importance of our post-Brexit security and defence relationship with the EU.
While Brussels insists that Britain cannot continue to enjoy – what it sees as – all the benefits of membership once outside the bloc, both the UK and EU realise that there is a strong argument for continued security cooperation.
In February the heads of intelligence services in the UK, France and Germany issued a rare joint statement stressing that continued cooperation was indispensable. They stated: “Even after the UK’s exit from the EU, close cooperation and cross-border information sharing must be taken forward on themes such as international terrorism, illegal migration, nuclear proliferation and cyber attacks. To have effect, our efforts must be combined in partnership.”
Subsequent events in Salisbury have underscored this message, even if they came as little surprise to observers in Central and Eastern Europe.
My European Parliament colleagues from across Central and Eastern Europe, and especially from the Baltic States where there are significant Russian minorities, have been warning me for years that we in the West underestimate the threat the Russian propaganda machine poses. To them, Russian interference is ever-present and all pervasive. For instance, while we might regard the state funded television station Russia Today simply as a second rate Sky News or CNN, they have long regarded it as a pernicious channel which aims to stir up discontent amongst Russian-speaking minority communities and Russophiles.
The cohesion shown by both EU and NATO members over the past fortnight offers hope that security and defence will transcend politics in the forthcoming Brexit talks and allow us to continue to work together to tackle such threats.
The UK Government is committed to that goal. It has consistently stressed that the UK will continue to cooperate via NATO, bilaterally with individual countries and, where there is mutual interest, with the EU. The Prime Minister is optimistic a new UK/EU security treaty can be agreed and signed during the implementation period.
The EU’s response has been encouraging. Guidelines for the future relationship with the UK, signed off at the Summit, state: “In view of our shared values and common challenges, there should be a strong EU-UK co-operation in the fields of foreign, security and defence policy.”
Of course differences remain, notably surrounding judicial oversight of the new structures and whether the UK would want to, or be able to, contribute as a third country to operational planning for EU defence missions. However, I am confident we will find agreement where it is in both our interests.
Certainly our Central and Eastern European partners hope so. But whatever the eventual outcome, they know we will not abandon them.
During a recent visit to Latvia I was told: “We would prefer you not to be leaving the EU but we would be much more worried if you were leaving NATO.”