Written evidence from Professor Hussein
Kassim, School of Politics, Social and International Studies,
University of East Anglia |
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 13 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
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
In 1998-99, 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
50% 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.
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 of 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.
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.
Not only did the FCO cut back its coverage of European matters
in London, but it has "pulled back
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,
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
meetingsthe 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 questionsthis
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,
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 to 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
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,
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 axisbetween
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 10the balance between the FCO and Cabinet Office
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:
"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 FCObut 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
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
- 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
- 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
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,
30 As part of the research for the report, interviews
were conducted with 30 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. Back
The greater involvement of the PM in European affairs was also
a consequence of the expanding role of the European Council. Back
"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." Back
"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." Back
UKREP officials working to COREPER I areas noted that there was
not a single FCO official working on their floor. Back
The number of staff working on Europe fell from 200 to around
90 following the UK Presidency in 2005. Back
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. Back
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. Back