Speech delivered by Minister for the Americas Sir Alan Duncan at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.
It’s great to be back in the US - I’ve been a frequent visitor to your shores, starting thirty five years ago this autumn - or should I say ‘Fall’? - when I was just beginning a wonderful year at Harvard. I was there when the Falklands were invaded, John Kerry was running to be Lt-Governor of Massachusetts and Barack Obama had yet to come to Harvard Law School.
Of course the relationship between our countries goes back a very long way. In fact today marks the 396th anniversary of the day the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in the Mayflower from England for the New World. Perhaps we should start planning now for the big 400th.
Continuity and enduring commitments are very much my theme for today. I’d like to challenge some of the myths being made about the UK since our referendum on EU membership, the British exit - now always called Brexit.
The referendum result 12 weeks ago today came as a shock to many - it was not the result we had either wanted or predicted in government – but I want to reassure you that it is not going to be the disaster for the UK or the rest of the world that some doomsayers are suggesting.
The referendum as a vote by the people has given us a clear mandate to leave the European Union, and so as the Government we are charting a course to do just that. The British Government - contrary to what you may have read in the New York Times - is very much the captain of the ship of state as we chart that course. We believe it is in everyone’s interests to have an orderly, constructive and smooth departure.
Let’s not underestimate the changes that have already taken place. From a standing start on the morning of 24 June, after the vote the day before, when David Cameron announced his resignation, we have seen a significant overhaul of the Machinery of Government - the choice of a new Prime Minister, a major reshuffle of senior Ministerial positions, the creation of two new Government Departments, and changes to some others. All these changes were put smoothly into operation by our excellent, non-political Civil Service, without any disruption to the running of the country, and we did that whilst also beginning preparations for Brexit.
But what comes next is going to be a complex process, one that will require time, expertise and a consistent approach, which is why the Prime Minister is putting the whole of the British Government behind getting the best deal – we’ve created a dedicated Department for Exiting the European Union, and a department alongside it, the Department for International Trade. Over the next two to three years, we will negotiate the manner of our departure from the EU and start to construct a new relationship with our European neighbours. Now this will represent a fundamental change in our legal relationship with the EU, but not to our outward looking view of the world.
What you will not see is the UK pulling up the drawbridge. We are not leaving Europe and we are not pulling back from the world. In fact that would be impossible - culturally, historically, intellectually and emotionally. We are a great European nation with global interests. And after Brexit we will be more vigorously outward-facing to Europe and to the rest of the world than ever before… and the United Kingdom remains open for business.
It is also important to stress that there are still a great many areas in which our interests and those of our European neighbours will continue to coincide.
The Scottish inventor, Alexander Graham Bell once said that when one door closes another one opens. Yet we often spend so long looking at the closed door that we don’t see the one that has opened. I think perhaps this is what’s happening right now with the referendum result. Many commentators are focused on the decision to close the door on our EU membership. Yet there are plenty of other doors opening up for the UK – some that have been open all along, and others that are yet to open, but will do so as soon as we leave the EU.
Now when the British people opted to leave the EU they did not opt to withdraw from the UN Security Council or NATO. They did not pull the plug on our membership of the G7, the G20 or the Commonwealth. They did not sign away Britain’s long-standing and hard-won commitment to the values of freedom, and democracy, and the rule of law.
Now we have a proud history as a trading nation and we have long been one of the strongest advocates of free trade. We remain the fifth largest economy in the world – the second fastest growing major economy in the world last year, and one of the top 10 in the world for competitiveness.
So we have been, and remain, an outward-facing sovereign nation, and, I hope, a force for good, with a diplomatic network that is respected across the world. We will continue to put that network to good use, reaching out to new trading partners and working with our international partners to find solutions to some of the world’s most complex challenges.
So just in case some might think we are not playing our part in the World, let me spell some out.
For instance our determination to support the stabilisation of Iraq remains undiminished. We will continue to work with the Government of Kurdistan. With the Regional Government there to encourage the necessary economic reforms to promote stability and give all Iraq citizens, including those in the Kurdistan Region, the economic opportunities they deserve.
We will continue to support UN efforts to find peace in Syria while at the same time working hard through our non-humanitarian programmes to preserve political moderation, and to lay the foundations for a political settlement after the conflict. And already we are one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid in Syria – we have committed £2.3 billion so far.
In Yemen too, we remain fully supportive of efforts to find peace.
In Libya, we remain at the forefront of international efforts to support the Government of National Accord. And we are boosting political participation and economic development and helping to counter the threat from Daesh and to tackle illegal migration and people trafficking.
Beyond the Middle East, we remain active bilaterally across a whole range of issues. In Sri Lanka, for instance, we are promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights after their civil war. In Colombia, we were a steadfast supporter of the peace deal, and are continuing to work with the Government, with civil society and business to make that deal sustainable. We are providing diplomatic, financial and technical assistance to peace-building, including drawing on our experience in Northern Ireland. In Burma, we have supported and encouraged positive change through sustained diplomatic and military engagement.
So our bilateral engagement in major global issues will continue – and, indeed we want to deepen bilateral relations with our key allies and partners.
Multilaterally too we will continue to work tirelessly with our partners in international organisations to promote and defend global peace and security and the Rules Based International System. We take our role as a Permanent member of the Unoted Nactions Security Council very seriously indeed, and leaving the EU will not change that.
But our global engagement goes beyond foreign policy. Our membership of NATO is at the heart of British defence policy and our commitment to it remains absolute. We meet the target of 2% of Gross Domestic Product on defence and spend 20% of our defence budget on major new equipment and research and development. We are a nuclear power. The Prime Minister reaffirmed our commitment to Trident in July - and we are a Framework Nation, both for NATO’s new Enhanced Forward Presence on the Eastern Flank, and for the Very High Readiness Joint Taskforce. We are the only NATO ally with this profile.
Our global defence and security and peacekeeping commitments go further. We are the sixth largest financial contributor to UN Peacekeeping. British peacekeepers are deployed in six missions around the world.
We remain a passionate advocate for the Women Peace and Security agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. We were the first G7 nation to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas development. We know that building prosperity for all is vital for long term stability, and that’s why we are working hard to increase women’s participation in all areas of life, to stamp out corruption, to reduce poverty and to tackle climate change.
So it is clear that many doors that were open to us before the referendum remain open today. Our active engagement in the challenges the world faces remains just as important to us as it did on that decision day of the 23 June.
It also means of course that when the day comes that we are no longer at the EU table we will need to ensure that the US, the UK and the EU continue to work together in pursuit of our shared interests.
As a long-standing friend of the US and a great European power, we actually remain the obvious bridge between the two continents and we will remain focussed on the issues that affect us all, such as terrorism, Russian aggression and illegal migration.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made absolutely clear that, once outside the EU, we have no intention at all of narrowing our horizons – quite the reverse, we will be seeking to broaden them. The Prime Minister set out her ambitious agenda to see the UK become the global leader in free trade when she attended the G20 Summit just last week. This will mean seeking new trading arrangements with new partners, and it will mean strengthening existing political relationships.
The US is clearly at the top of that list. As I said earlier, the special relationship between our countries is something we greatly value, but not as a piece of history to be preserved for posterity. It is a relationship that continues to strengthen and deepen with the passage of time. I actually think that leaving the EU offers us the opportunity to make that relationship even stronger. We are already planning to open three new British Government offices here - in San Diego, Raleigh, and Minneapolis – which is a clear sign of our commitment to the relationship.
So change can be daunting, and there is no denying the fact that the outcome of the United Kingdom’s referendum on 23 June has brought about a seismic shift in our political landscape. But when the earth shakes the horizons do not move with it. No matter how momentous the change in our relationship with the EU, our political horizons will remain as broad as ever. The UK is, and will remain, a committed and engaged player on the global stage, promoting and defending peace, and security and prosperity and championing the values we have always held dear, which are: freedom, democracy and the rule of law.