Under new political management, there may be a chance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) can reinsert its understanding of the 27 EU member states back into the Brexit process. To date, this experience and knowledge – some Brexit diplomacy – has been sorely absent.
For example, the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech included the argument that the UK is too exceptional for EU membership. Given her audience was a serried rank of European ambassadors, that message was not entirely diplomatic.
When David Davis went to Berlin, he made the tin-eared comment that “putting politics above prosperity is never a smart choice” – a remark that should never have survived the red pen of the embassy.
And finally, when the Government decided to translate the Brexit white paper into multiple European languages and inevitably blundered (despite the warning from many, including an IfG panel, that the enterprise would end in farce).
Throughout the entire Brexit process, the Government seems to have been surprised that messages to the UK domestic audience are being read in European capitals. A more impactful FCO could and should have been making that point repeatedly to Number 10 and the Department for Exiting the EU.
The former Foreign Secretary was so preoccupied with pursuing his own ambitions – and his own version of Brexit – that his department appeared not to be playing its role in making sure the Government’s messages landed well with the foreign governments.
The character and track record of Boris Johnson did not help. He went down well in some European countries, establishing good relationships with his Danish counterpart, and appreciated by the Baltic countries for his forthright support.
But bad jokes about prosecco, references to Nazis and a European narrative that he had shamelessly manipulated facts to mislead the electorate into Brexit left him lacking credibility. At worst, he was viscerally loathed in key European capitals.
The new Foreign Secretary starts with an advantage: he does not come with a load of EU referendum baggage. He was a Remainer then, though has now repositioned himself as a Brexit supporter. Hunt’s long tenure at the Department of Health and Social Care means he has relatively little form at European level, which should allow him to establish a more productive conversation with his opposite numbers than his predecessors.
It is impossible to know yet the success of his summer charm offensive. His private conversations may be going swimmingly, preparing the ground for the Salzburg leaders’ summit in September.
But we can judge the new Foreign Secretary on his public messaging (and not just #wifegate). For some reason, he decided that the most effective thing to say after his meeting with his German opposite number is that the European stance risks an “accidental” no deal which would harm both sides.
That might well be a message to give in private, as European ministers look nervously at the Prime Minister’s fragility in Parliament. But this action hardly seems like an attempt to persuade member states of the merits of her Chequers plan, or explain why the UK thinks the European Commission’s Irish backstop proposal is a problem.
Indeed, one of the ironies of the summer is that this argument is now being made more effectively by European commentators, including the Christian Democratic Union Chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee. They argue that the UK’s Chequers plan is sufficiently attractive to EU economies and that the EU27 should reconsider their own red lines.
That is the message a new Foreign Secretary – and a reengaged Foreign Office – should be taking to European capitals.