UK Politics

William Hague: UK must extend influence or face decline

William Hague has said the UK must have more "global reach and influence" or face decline in a fast-changing world.

In his first major speech as foreign secretary, he said the UK must be much "more clear, focused and effective" in achieving foreign policy goals.

The UK must build its influence in Europe, he argued, with more British officials in senior posts in Brussels.

He also called for stronger links with new economic superpowers such as China, India and Brazil.

Speaking at the Foreign Office in London, Mr Hague said the UK's global influence had waned under 13 years of Labour rule and had not taken advantage of new opportunities and its unrivalled links with different parts of the world.

The BBC's World Affairs Correspondent Mike Wooldridge said that although Mr Hague was keen to set out a long-term, systematic vision for foreign policy, it was likely the UK's agenda would continue to be dominated by events in Afghanistan.

Earlier on Wednesday, and amid reports of differences among ministers over how long British troops would remain there, Mr Hague said the government had no deadline for withdrawing combat troops but it was very unlikely that they would still be there in 2015.

In his speech, Mr Hague stressed that the UK's relationship with the US remained the country's most important, describing the alliance as "unbreakable".

'Ad hoc and patchy'

But he said that the UK needed to look further afield, respond to changes in economic power around the world and develop strong relationship with emerging powers in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

"In recent years, Britain's approach to building relationships with new and emerging powers has been ad hoc and patchy, giving rise to the frequent complaint from such governments that British ministers only get in touch when a crisis arises or a crucial vote is needed," he said.

"This weakens our ability to forge agreement on difficult issues affecting the lives of millions around the world and overlooks the importance of consistency and personal relationships in the conduct of foreign policy.

The foreign secretary said British diplomacy must be more pro-active and agile, promoting the national interest but one that was not "selfishly defined".

"A distinctive British foreign policy that is active in Europe and across the world; that builds up British engagement in the parts of the globe where opportunities as well as threats increasingly lie; that is at ease within a networked world and harnesses the full potential of our cultural links," he said.

In doing so, the UK needed to be more aware of public perceptions about its role in the world, particularly in countries such as Pakistan in the frontline in the fight against terrorism, and use new forms of technology to communicate.

"We overlook international opinion at our peril," he said. "We must try harder to get our message across."

New initiatives could involve using new means of communication such as text message and Twitter, strengthening personal relationships with other countries' ministers, and exploiting the appeal of British culture.

'Playing politics'

On Europe, Mr Hague said it was "unsustainable fiction" that the last government had put the UK at the heart of Europe, saying it had mistaken "institutional change" for progress on developing better relationships with individual members.

The UK must work closer with groups of smaller states in areas of mutual interest as well as maintaining its central relationships with Germany and France.

He said UK representation in Brussels had declined, with 200 fewer British officials at the European Commission now than in 1997. Although it represented 12% of the EU population, the UK has just 1.8% of staff in entry-level positions at the commission, he noted.

"It is mystifying to us that the previous government failed to give due weight to the development of British influence in the EU," he added.

"They neglected to ensure that sufficient numbers of bright British officials entered EU institutions, and so we are now facing a generation gap developing in the British presence in parts of the EU where early decisions take place......As a new government, we are determined to put this right."

Shadow foreign secretary David Miliband accused Mr Hague of "playing politics" with foreign policy, adding: "The idea of him lecturing the Labour Party about joined-up government, when the defence secretary and prime minister can't go more than two days without disagreeing about our most important foreign policy objective, is risible."

He went on: "The idea that he is going to bring a new dynamic to our relationship with China, when on my last visit as foreign secretary I secured a strategic dialogue without compare, is a non-starter.

"And the idea that this coalition will bring renewed influence to the European Union, when the prime minister is not even in the room with the key decision-makers because of his political alliances, is just plain wrong."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said that in the post-colonial period, the UK had "withdrawn almost completely" from parts of the world.

"We have missed out and it is time to redress the balance," he told the BBC's Daily Politics.

But former Labour minister Denis MacShane told the same programme the UK must avoid being seen to "lecture" countries like India and Pakistan on the state of relations or "patronise them with aid", instead focusing on trade and cultural links.

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