The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from Professor Hussein Kassim , School of Politics, Social and International Studies,University of East Anglia

The Role of the FCO in the UK Co-ordination of EU Policy

The role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in the coordination of the UK’s EU business has changed significantly over the past thirteen years in ways that raise important questions about the division of labour in European affairs between King Charles Street, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, as well as the FCO’s responsibilities, and the available expertise and level of resource the FCO devotes to this important policy area. In a study recently conducted by a team led by the author (Kassim et al 2010), based on interviews with officials in several Whitehall departments, [1] uncertainty was expressed about the sustainability of the FCO’s role since May 2010 and more broadly a model of national EU policy coordination centred on a ministry for foreign affairs.

The FCO in historical perspective

In 1998–1999, officials across Whitehall invariably identified the FCO as a central actor in the UK’s system for coordinating EU policy playing a co-equal role alongside the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office and the UK Permanent Representation (UKREP) (Kassim 2000). It is useful to recall the FCO’s responsibilities, functions and organization during this period as a point of reference.

The FCO had a close relationship with UKREP. Not only did UKREP report to the FCO, but the FCO supplied around fifty per cent of UKREP’s staff and the culture of the UK’s mission in Brussels was closer to the FCO than any other department. The Foreign Secretary was formally responsible for defining the UK’s European policy, accompanied the PM to meetings of the European Council, attended the General Affairs Council, and, assisted by a Minister of State for European Affairs, took the lead in diplomacy with the UK’s European partners. The Foreign Secretary presided over, E(DOP), the cabinet committee charged with responsibility for European policy, to which the official level committee, EQ(O), reported, while the Europe Minister chaired a committee of junior ministers intended to assure political coordination across Whitehall and a committee responsible for maintaining party-to-party relations.

Within the FCO, two senior officials played a key role. The Economic and EU Director, one of five Deputy Under-Secretaries in the FCO, was charged with developing the UK’s strategy towards Europe over the medium- and long-term. The Director for Europe, meanwhile, had a ‘hands on’ role, which included managing the three divisions within the FCO dealing with European policy: European Union Division (Internal), which shadowed the progress of technical dossiers through EU processes, briefed the Foreign Secretary on EU business, took the lead on cross-cutting issues, such as preparing for Inter-Governmental Conferences, and operated the communications infrastructure connecting London to Brussels and other European capitals; European Union Division (External) took the lead in Whitehall for defining UK policy in regard to the EU’s external relations; and European Union Bilateral Relations (EUB). A fourth division was created whenever the UK held the Council Presidency, while a specialist division in a separate chain of command was responsible for the CFSP and related business.

Both Labour PMs from 1997 to 2010 were interventionist in EU policy and PM Blair sought to give 10 Downing Street a stronger role in steering the UK’s EU policy. [2] This was symbolised by the appointment of Sir Stephen Wall as both Head of the European Secretariat and the PM’s adviser on Europe. However, though the PM was more effectively advised and brought closer to domestic coordination, Downing Street did not develop the capacity to take a permanent lead in European policy. After 1997, HM Treasury also became more assertive in EU policy, especially, though not exclusively, in regard to EMU and financial and budgetary issues. The FCO’s lead was thereby vulnerable to interventions from two major actors.

Although FCO contacts with embassies in EU member states remain an important FCO-centred resource that is mobilised in the pursuit national policy objectives in a way that distinguishes the UK from other member states, other developments have reduced the scope and presence of the FCO in EU policy. The strong position the FCO had enjoyed in the late 1990s was gradually undermined by the loss of the near-monopoly over EU expertise it previously enjoyed as experience spread across Whitehall and the expansion of EU competencies extended to include areas where the technical expertise of the line ministries become more relevant to EU business. [3] Moreover, as a result of internal restructuring and other changes, the FCO no longer shadowed all areas of EU policy, intervened in policy areas where there is no direct FCO interest, or, since every department established its own link to UKREP, controlled communications between Whitehall and Brussels. [4] Not only did the FCO cut back its coverage of European matters in London, but it has ‘pulled back … from day-to-day monitoring of the work at UKREP in which [it does not] have a strategic interest’. It is not as strongly represented among UKREP staff as in the past, [5] nor does it formulate the instructions sent to UKREP. At the same time as it has become more independent of the FCO, UKREP retains its centrality in coordination, as symbolised by the weekly Cunliffe-Darroch meetings-the centrepiece of the UK system.

One of our respondents attributed the FCO’s diminishing role to a resource squeeze: ‘The Foreign Office has less of a role than they did on central policy questions-this is to do with resources’-a desire for an FCO that is ‘more foreign, less office’. Another saw a shift in priorities from Europe towards the Middle East and Asia, [6] or toward an emphasis on trade promotion rather than the FCO’s traditional functions. A senior diplomat, now retired, reflecting on the FCO’s loss of status in European matters, wondered whether governments had lost sight of the need for expertise that supports strategic thinking in foreign policy.

A major reorganization was enacted in 2006, when FCO structures were overhauled to allow the FCO adapt to meet new strategic priorities. A single Directorate, Europe and Globalisation, now covers Global Issues, Africa and the Asia-Pacific, as well as Europe more broadly, and bilateral and multilateral, and issues and areas, have been integrated at desk level. As a consequence, although the FCO runs a single European network, unlike foreign ministries elsewhere, it has no directorate concerned exclusively with Europe.

The FCO’s role since May 2010

Since the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the decline of the FCO’s influence in UK European policy appears to have been partly reversed, [7] even if the streamlining of units dealing with Europe continued. The Foreign Secretary has taken a strong lead in setting European policy and the PM is less interventionist than his immediate predecessors. The resurgence of the FCO featured significantly among interviewees. Although an overwhelming majority averred that the Cabinet Office was the de facto centre of the UK system, several commented on the FCO’s new assertiveness:

‘This is a much debated topic. Formally speaking it is the Cabinet Office, and broadly speaking this is true.’

‘There is an FCO/Cabinet Office axis - between the two they manage it’.

The FCO and Cabinet Office are the de facto centre and work closely together, with the Cabinet Office providing coordination and the FCO providing strategy.’

At the moment the power balance is quite balanced due to a strong Foreign Secretary and a strong European advisor to No. 10 - the balance between the FCO and Cabinet Office is better.’

The Foreign Secretary’s role as chair of a revitalized cabinet committee, the European Affairs Committee, was regarded as especially significant. According to one official: ‘Under the new coalition [the de facto centre of coordination] is the new European Affairs Committee, chaired by William Hague’. Another observed that:

‘The FCO has seen a bit of a resurgence in its role, especially since the election. The new EU Minister and the Foreign Secretary are looking to reassert the FCO grip on the totality of EU negotiations.’

Others were somewhat more equivocal, however:

The FCO’s recent resurgence is partly based on which Cab Committee makes decisions. Moreover, as Chair of the European Affairs Committee (EAC), William Hague (Foreign Secretary) gets advice from the Cabinet Office as well as his own department.

‘The Foreign Secretary is [ultimately] responsible for coordination. He is served by the Cabinet Office and to some extent the FCO on this. But it depends on who’s in power and who the ministers are as to where the balance of power lies between the two. The links between the Cabinet Office and FCO fluctuate according to personalities more than governments. Whoever is chairing a Cabinet Committee is served by officials from the Cabinet Office. [There is thus] a duality to it.’

There was some concern that the new division of responsibilities would not prove to be stable or enduring: [8]

‘The secretarial side is provided by the Cabinet Office. The centre is thus somewhere around here. The Foreign Office is trying to be resurgent in European affairs. William Hague sees the Foreign Office as a player in policies across the piece. This may be tempered over time by the reality of what is possible or feasible, which may change over time.’

Moreover, the idea that the FCO should occupy the central coordinating role was contested by one interviewee:

‘David Cameron is leaving foreign policy much more to the FCO. Hague thinks it’s silly to duplicate coordination at the Cabinet Office and the FCO-but then the logical place of a coordination mechanism would be in the Cabinet Office given the cross-cutting nature of EU policy. [...] The FCO priority is diplomatic relations and future enlargement. [...] [The system] needs a neutral broker given the cross-cutting nature of policy. Such a broker can’t sit at the FCO.’

This is an important view, which reflects the tensions inherent in a model centred on the ministry of foreign affairs adopted by some EU member states; that the FCO is a line ministry and therefore fundamentally ill-suited to the role of central coordinator.


The role and status of the FCO in UK coordination of EU policy has changed significantly since the late 1990s. However, the change in its responsibilities and organization raises important questions:

· Are the responsibilities of 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the FCO sufficiently well demarcated?

· If the FCO no longer plays the traditional role of strategic thinking about the UK’s European policy, has this function been lost to the system or has it moved elsewhere within Whitehall?

· Is Europe prominent enough within FCO priorities?

· Does the FCO have sufficient resources to manage its European responsibilities?

· Should the FCO’s functions be reduced to the promotion of trade or is traditional diplomacy still important?

· Is the FCO’s more central role in coordination compatible with its interests as a ministry

1 February 2011


Kassim, H., Dittmer-Odell, M. and Wright, N. (2010) EU Policy Coordination in the United Kingdom, Study commissioned for the Austrian Federal Chancellery, ‘Internal Coordination on EU Policy-Making in Member States: Processes and Structures’, led by Prof. Dr. Sonja Puntscher Riekmann, Prof. Dr. Andreas Dür, and Dr. Helmut P. Gaisbauer, Centre of European Union Studies, University of Salzburg.

Kassim, H. (2000) ‘United Kingdom’ in Kassim, Peters and Wright (eds) (2000) The National Co-ordination of EU Policy: the domestic level, Oxford University Press, pp. 22-53

[1] As part of the research for the report, interviews were conducted with thirty officials in London and in Brussels between July and November 2010. All interviews were conducted on the basis of strict confidentiality and the anonymity of respondents was guaranteed. Quotations are therefore not attributed.


[2] The greater involvement of the PM in European affairs was also a conseq uence of the expanding role of the European Council.

[3] ‘ The FCO has been in the shadows for the last five years, as it had taken the view that there was so much EU business, that it was impossible to handle, so it ended up with the line ministries with increasing frequency, with the FCO focusing on constitutional issues. This was based on a critical understanding of the role of the FCO in the world and concluding that there was now sufficient expertise within Whitehall to deal with European matters on a ministry-by-ministry basis.’

[4] ‘ The FCO has decreasingly involved itself in non-FCO business.[...] The FCO rarely gets involved in domestic EU business unless it has major implications for our overall [foreign] relations. But the FCO is still important for information gathering etc. UKREP, the Treasury and lead ministries will all be important to this as well.’

[5] UKREP officials working to COREPER I areas noted that there was not a single FCO official working on their floor.

[6] The number of staff working on Europe fell from 200 to around 90 following the UK Presidency in 2005.

[7] You saw at the same time, more and more people were being seconded to UKREP from line ministries, with particular skills that FCO officials did not possess.’

[8] Looking back over the longer term, one official observed that: ‘ There has always been tension between the Foreign Office and Cabinet Office as to where soul of European policy is. It is still developing under the new government.’