True Patriots Cannot Be Parochial

01/03/2017 13:14 GMT | Updated 02/03/2018 10:12 GMT
Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Although we are leaving the European Union it remains self-evidently true that nations have to work together if we are to secure better economic and social conditions for our citizens. Nor can we ignore the fact that many of the great challenges we face now and in the future pay no heed to national borders. Seeking control in the world demands that we do not turn our back on it.

If the past century has taught us anything it is that international co-operation is at the heart of Britain's prosperity and security. It was in the second half of that century that we came to realise that it was far better and more effective to be a global power that achieved its goals through the influence that comes from working with others, rather than by continuing to rely on our imperial past.

And, as we look to the future, we can see the continuing and bloody echoes of the Arab spring; the struggle between the secular and the religious; unpredictability to the east and to the west in the Kremlin and the White House; shifting economic power and restless competition; the inexorable dawning of a changing climate; a rising global population that by the time my two grandchildren reach my age will be more than three times greater than when I was born; and the relentless movement of people across the globe, whether they be fleeing conflict, escaping the consequences of that change in climate or simply seeking the better life that they see others living.

The EU will remain one of the poles of power and influence in our dangerous and uncertain times and, as we recast Britain's relationship with Europe, we must seek the strongest possible continued cooperation on foreign policy, defence, security and the fight against terrorism with the other 27 member states.

Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty makes clear that the EU: "shall seek to develop relations and build partnerships with third countries, and international, regional or global organisations which share... [its] principles". We should draw on this commitment and our existing relationship to form what I call a 'European Common Foreign Policy Area'.

There are a range of ways in which this could be done ranging from informal arrangements to formal structures. Professor Richard Whitman has proposed that the UK could still take part in EU foreign and security policy-making in the form of an EU+1 arrangement. This would allow UK ministers to attend the Foreign Affairs Council for relevant agenda items and, with the precedent set for participation by the US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary General, take part in the work of the Political and Security Committee and its working groups. This would allow us to align our foreign policy with that of our neighbours where we wish to do so.

The European Council has always operated on the basis of unanimity on foreign and security policy, and that will of course continue. Having the UK there also - being at the table in meetings, ideally as an active participant - would be in everyone's interests. The UK could also seek to remain within the Common Security and Defence Policy.

The Government should make this a central goal in the Brexit negotiations from the start because we know from experience that by working shoulder-to-shoulder with our European neighbours - whether on standing up to Russia through sanctions, or countering piracy off the East Coast of Africa or helping to secure the Iran nuclear deal - we have kept our citizens safer than they would otherwise have been. And even in the case of Syria's refugees, for all the difficulties and the failures, imagine what it would have been like with no European Union or collective action to manage the crisis.

The UK must to be forthright in our defence of internationalism and the rules-based system that was created out of the ashes of the Second World War, especially in in the face of the resurgent climate change deniers, the aid cutters and the isolationists who would have us turn away from our responsibilities one to another. If they ever succeeded, far from taking back control, they would lessen Britain's power.

This is no time to be retreating from what helps to give us security and influence in the world. And Europe's collective voice is stronger when it includes the UK's voice too. In an increasingly interdependent world, true patriots cannot be parochial.

Hilary Benn is the Labour MP for Leeds Central and a former shadow foreign secretary