WAR MONGERING?: Nick Robinson – for once – did a credible job this morning (9/5) in trying to pin down foreign secretary Philip Hammond over David Cameron’s dire warning that exiting the EU could endanger peace and security in Europe, with the continent at the mercy of ‘forces of nationalism’ – a claim that led in the Daily Mail (for example) that he was saying that Brexit could lead to war. Robinson’s first question, (or rather statement, because the interview was recorded) was:
[David Cameron] will go on to make an argument about the risk to the continent if we choose to leave. Well, a few minutes ago, I did speak to the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond and I asked him if leaving the EU really could lead to war on the continent, perhaps he should begin by apologising to the public for holding a referendum with such enormous consequences.
Hammond immediately squirmied, and indeed, spent the next ten minutes in the prime 8.10am Today slot effectively side-stepping the point, as the transcript below shows. Robinson kept the interview on relatively narrow tram lines and it gradually emerged that Hammond was prepared only to say that the EU had a peace-keeping role; in his view, it was the newspapers that had, in effect, exaggerated the Prime Minister’s message by bringing the possibility of war into the equation. Robinson rightly noted that it was the Prime Minister’s invocation of Churchill and Wellington that had been the trigger for that.
The full extent of Hammond’s obfuscation and slipperiness was revealed in this exchange:
NR: Well, I put to you again then the question that I opened with, which is: if it’s so serious, why on earth put this at risk by having an unnecessary referendum, and why did you, not much longer than a year ago, I think, say you were ready to vote to leave the EU in certain circumstances? PH: If there’d been no change, if there was no change of direction of the European Union (words unclear due to speaking over) NR: (speaking over) Sure, but as our Foreign Secretary, and as previous Defence Secretary, you were (fragment of word, unclear) willing to take the risk over peace and war, and you’ve changed your mind over a few welfare benefit changes? PH: Why are we having a referendum? Because this is a democracy, and because the European Union has changed significantly since we last voted on this issue in 1975, and it is right in a democracy, and clearly the will of the British people as we’re seeing from this robust debate today, that they should have a chance to express a view on this issue and it’s simply not acceptable in a democracy for the elite to say, ‘This is a question too important to put to the people.’ It’s not . . .
That said, Robinson’s approach to the ‘balancing’ interview towards the end of the programme (8.50am) with government minister Penny Mordaunt was wholly different. First, the exchange was much shorter than that with Hammond, and in consequence, she was not able to develop any effective rebuttals. Then Robinson described her during the exchange as a ‘relatively junior minister’ (thereby surely undermining her authority), and finally asked her to take part in a game of naming world leaders who agreed with the UK leaving the EU. Mordaunt attempted to say that there was a long list of senior military and intelligence figures who supported ‘leave’, and that leaders were concurring with David Cameron for the sake of diplomacy. But before she could respond fully, or with any coherence to the substantive point, he wound the interview up. Earlier Robinson asked if she accepted David Cameron’s argument that ‘at a dangerous and unstable time’ Brexit was bound to weaken the glue that held the nations of Europe together; whether the UK leaving would lead to other countries leaving too, and whether that was important; and finally, whether the UK leaving would make it easier to deal with tensions created by the Eurozone crisis and ‘migration’, Mordaunt managed to say in response that the EU was not delivering on security and prosperity because it did not allow nation states to thrive, and was causing fragmentation; that exit would allow the UK to control its own borders; and that exit would be a catalyst for beneficial reform of the rest of the EU. But Robinson interrupted her frequently, and at no stage was she allowed to formulate detailed responses which answered the points raised by Robinson fully. By contrast, Hammond had plenty of space to put his arguments about the importance of the EU in keeping the peace. Overall, therefore, the two exchanges were not at all balanced. Most weight was put on the Cameron warning. BBC editors thought the Cameron intervention was so important that they were already trailing it in the BBC1 bulletins on Sunday evening. Security correspondent Frank Gardiner was wheeled out to reinforce the gravity. In his estimation, ‘the most authoritative voices’ in the security establishment were also warning that leaving the EU would compromise the UK’s safety.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’, 9th May 2016, Interview with Philip Hammond, 8.10am
NICK ROBINSON: The Prime Minister is speaking just about now about that issue of Europe. Now, you’ve heard many risks spelt out by both campaigns in this EU referendum, mortgages, for example, going up versus the suggestion that immigration will go up. But the Prime Minister is going much, much further than that, arguing that there is really a risk to peace and security on the continent of Britain chooses to lose (sic, means ‘leave’?) it’s produced headlines claiming that Brexit could lead to war. In a few minutes, I’ll be asking the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, to explain just how that might be the case, but the Prime Minister, meanwhile, is just on his feet, let’s go live now, just to hear a little of what he’s got to say.
DAVID CAMERON . . . help decide the rules, the advantages of this far outweigh any disadvantages. Our membership of the single market is one of the reasons why our economy is doing so well, why we’ve created almost 2.4 million jobs over the last six years, and why so many companies from overseas, from China, India, the United States and Australia and other Commonwealth countries invest so much here in the UK. It’s one of the factors, together with our superb workforce, low taxes set by the British government, and our climate of enterprise which makes Britain such an excellent place to do business . . .
NR: Well, there’s the Prime Minister making the more conventional argument, but he will go on to make an argument about the risk to the continent if we choose to leave. Well, a few minutes ago, I did speak to the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond and I asked him if leaving the EU really could lead to war on the continent, perhaps he should begin by apologising to the public for holding a referendum with such enormous consequences.
PHILIP HAMMOND: The point that the Prime Minister is going to be making in the speech that he is giving this morning is that Britain is a European power, it has a vital interest in peace and stability on this continent and historically, whenever we’ve turned our back on Europe, whenever we’ve retreated into isolation, we’ve ended up regretting it and having to reinsert ourselves into the European equation because it’s essential for us to be there to protect our own interests, (fragments of words, unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) But he’s doing more than that, isn’t he? He’s going further and saying that if we leave the glue that holds together European nations may be dissolved and that may end in conflict or war?
PH: Well, what he’s doing is pointing out that although we in Britain have enjoyed peace and stability for many, many years, not all parts of the European continent have been that fortunate, not all parts have the deep and long democratic traditions that we have, not all parts are as stable as we are. And he’s pointing out as well that the European Union is one of the institutions that ensures peace, stability and security in our continent, and he argues . . .
NR: (speaking over) Can we spell it out though, is he arguing that, and are you arguing that not that there is an necessity of this, of course not, but there is a chance that is leaving the EU produces the conditions for conflict, a conflict that we in Britain are forced to intervene in?
PH: Er, the point the Prime Minister is making is that the European Union, a strong European Union is an important contributor to peace and security in our continent, and if we . . .
NR: (speaking over) It seems to me you’re reluctant to say it, forgive me, you’re willing the headlines that say they might be war . . .
PH: (speaking over) Look, I didn’t, I didn’t write the headlines . . .
NR: (speaking over) Er, you’re quoting Churchill, you’re quoting Wellington, you’re quoting the Duke of Marlborough in aid, and yet when I say, ‘Well, might it lead to war?’ you’re, ‘Oh, no, no, we’re not quite saying that.’
PH: Well, I don’t write the headlines in some of our newspapers, what I’m saying is that the European Union is an important contributor to the stability and peace that we enjoy in Europe and that is in Britain’s interests, and history tells us that Britain is a European power, it’s a global power as well, but it’s a European power and it cannot turn its back on what’s going on in Europe, we have to be concerned about what’s going on in Europe.
NR: Well, I put to you again then the question that I opened with, which is: if it’s so serious, why on earth put this at risk by having an unnecessary referendum, and why did you, not much longer than a year ago, I think, say you were ready to vote to leave the EU in certain circumstances?
PH: If there’d been no change, if there was no change of direction of the European Union (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Sure, but as our Foreign Secretary, and as previous Defence Secretary, you were (fragment of word, unclear) willing to take the risk over peace and war, and you’ve changed your mind over a few welfare benefit changes?
PH: Why are we having a referendum? Because this is a democracy, and because the European Union has changed significantly since we last voted on this issue in 1975, and it is right in a democracy, and clearly the will of the British people as we’re seeing from this robust debate today, that they should have a chance to express a view on this issue and it’s simply not acceptable in a democracy for the elite to say, ‘This is a question too important to put to the people.’ It’s not . . .
NR: (speaking over) It’s hard to imagine Churchill saying, you know, ‘I think this could cause conflict in Europe, but never mind, let’s consider doing it.’
PH: It’s a question that we should put to the British people. We should have a robust debate about it, nobody on this side of the argument is suggesting that all the, all the arguments go one way, there’s a balance to be made, we believe that the balance of these arguments looking at Britain’s prosperity, future jobs, future economic growth, Britain’s security and safety and Britain’s influence in the world, clearly come down on the side of remaining in the European Union, that will make . . .
NR: (speaking over, words unclear) your experience . . .
PH: . . . stronger, safer and more prosperous.
NR: Forgive me, but has your experience as, first Defence Secretary, then Foreign Secretary changed your mind? You were a leading Eurosceptic, are there things that you’ve seen, conversations you’ve had, documents that’s crossed your desk, that have now made you think that the risk of Britain leaving is far, far higher – or is your side of the argument just to be a panic that it might lose?
PH: It has, being Foreign Secretary has certainly changed my perspective. I’ve visited 71 countries as Foreign Secretary and with my hand on my heart I can tell you that not in any one of those countries have the people I’ve been meeting told me that Britain would be a more influential power, Britain would be a more important partner to them if we were outside the European Union. Quite contrary. All of them have told me that they regard Britain as an important power in its own right, but they regard Britain’s influence and Britain’s importance is magnified by the fact that it is one of the leading powers in the European Union.
NR: Let’s go to the kernel of this argument then about peace and security, you know, your former, your predecessor as Defence Secretary, Liam Fox would make this case, no doubt Boris Johnson will later, that it’s NATO that keeps the peace on the European continent, it is the binding of the United States in with the European countries that keeps is secure, not the EU?
PH: Of course NATO is crucially important and will remain a member of NATO whatever happens, but NATO is essentially an outward-looking, war-fighting machine, and very, very important to us. What the European Union does is operate to bind the nation states of the European Union together, through mechanisms for peace and security which work between those European Union states, and what the Prime Minister is saying . . .
NR: (speaking over) But surely, surely Mr Hammond, surely Mr Hammond, you may have been able to make that argument in the first 20, 30 even 40 years of the EU, but far from binding the countries of Europe together at the moment, the crisis over the Eurozone, with people losing their jobs because of interest rates set to benefit Germany, the crisis over mass migration which is not being controlled and people are erecting fences across borders again, the EU is contributing to the sources of conflict, not ending them.
PH: No, it’s that, but that’s a . . . er, if I may so, that’s a misanalysis. The challenge of dealing with large scale migration flows in the continent of Europe, and we’re not in the Schengen area, so we’re not directly affected as other countries are, but that challenge would be there anyway, and the European Union gives as a mechanism for addressing that challenge. Now, it’s not a perfect mechanism, and of course, tensions have risen as a result of the huge migratory flows that we saw last summer, but the European Union gives as a mechanism for containing and managing those threats, and we can’t, as the British people, just because we live on an island, turn our backs on those issues and say there nothing to do with us, they . . .
NR: (speaking over) Let’s spell it out then.
PH: They do affect us.
PH: They do present us with risk, and we have to be engaged in resolving that problem.
NR: (speaking over) I want you to spell out that risk. I, I accept, you know, you don’t want write headlines about war, let’s you spell out the risk then, if we leave, what then follows that could lead to conflict?
PH: The European Union will be weaker without Britain inside it, and the mechanisms that maintain the peace and stability of the continent will be commensurately weaker, Britain . . .
NR: (speaking over) But are you saying the democracies, because usually, we assume, democracies don’t go to war with one another, are you saying that if Britain leaves the . . . there would be a situation, suddenly, over a period of years perhaps, in which one country in the EU might go into conflict with another country in the EU despite the fact these are free, democratic countries.
PH: What we, what we run the risk of is tensions rising in parts of Europe that perhaps do not have the deep and enduring democratic routes that we and our immediate neighbours have, and in the areas just outside the European Union, the Balkans for example, countries that are closely associated with the European Union that are applicant states, (fragment of word, unclear) would-be member states of the European Union, where the European Union has significant influence and significant ability to influence events, anything that weakens the European Union would weaken the forces of stability in those areas, that would be bad for Britain, bad for Britain’s security . . .
NR: (speaking over) Sure, you made that point.
PH: . . . and for Britain’s, er, role in the world.
NR: A final thought for you: it is really quite extraordinary, isn’t it that a national leader who says that leaving the EU would be so fundamentally against our national interest, has chosen to put all this at risk simply to deal with the rise of UKIP and a rebellion in his own party?
PH: We live in a democracy, er, Nick. When we go into a general election, as a Tory I will be telling my voters that it is in the national interest to elect a Conservative government, that what the opposition parties proposing the government would be bad for Britain, but it is for the voters to decide. And in this argument we are making the case for Britain being stronger, safer and better off inside the European Union . . .
NR: (speaking over) Foreign Secretary . . .
PH: . . . but it’s the British people that will listen to the arguments, weigh them up and decide on balance where Britain’s best interests lies.
NR: They will, and they’ll also listen to a junior defence minister who is coming on the programme later, who disagrees with that. Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary, thank you very much.
PH: Thank you.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’, 9th May 2016, Interview with Penny Mordaunt, 8.50am
NICK ROBINSON: Now, in the last few minutes the Prime Minister has used a speech to argue that a vote to leave the EU would endanger peace and security in Europe, and arguing that history shows Britain can’t stand aside from conflict on the continent. Challenging the Prime Minister’s arguments is a woman he appointed to be a defence minister, Penny Mordaunt, she’s part of the Vote Leave campaign, and she joins us from our Westminster studio, morning to you.
PENNY MORDAUNT: Good morning.
NR: Do you accept the core of the Prime Minister’s argument that at a dangerous time, and unstable time, Brexit is bound to weaken the glue that holds the nations of Europe together?
PM: No, I do not. The Leave campaign want to drag the Prime Minister back to the issues that matter today, our borders, the security risks that come from accessing countries and to our operational security and what we need to keep our country safe today, the Prime Minister . . .
NR: (speaking over) Sure, but let me drag you back to his argument, though . . .
PM: (speaking over) Yes, the Prime Minister today is, is trying to tap into a . . . a vision, which I think we all share, of nations living in peace, looking West, er, secure and prosperous. What is being debated though is that the EU is a) necessary to that, and I would actually argue that its current trajectory is absolutely counter to that. At the same time, he’s telling us that we are heading for war if we leave, the EU is denying us the tools we need to protect our own citizens, and at the same time . . .
NR: (speaking over) Look, there’s evidence, there’s evidence against you in this sense, isn’t there, which is in a poll Ipsos MORI have done right across the EU, what would be the response of the peoples of Europe to Brexit, they would demand their referendum, and more people would demand to get out the EU. Now, what would be interesting to know is do you welcome that, do you think yes, let’s get, let’s get other countries at the EU, or do you hope they’ll all stay together and will just walk away?
PM: Well, I think it, it, it’s worth asking why those countries are, are saying that, it is because . . .
NR: (interrupting) But forgive me, I’m asking you whether it’ll happen, not why.
PM: No, well, I think we ought to be looking at why. Look the, the reason why the EU is not delivering, either on security or economic prosperity is it . . . because it is not doing what its nation states need in order to thrive. Erm, it is causing tremendous fragmentation, the rise of far right politics all the things that the Prime Minister are warning us could happen if we leave, are here now today.
NR: And you (fragment of word, unclear) arguing that it would make things better, those, all those tensions created, nobody denies it, by the Eurozone crisis, all the tensions created by the migration crisis – you are arguing that if one of the principle democracies in the world, one of the biggest military powers, one of the greatest economic power (sic) votes to leave, that will somehow reduce those tensions?
PM: I think it will, because of very, very (word unclear due to speaking over ‘confident’?) reasons . . .
NR: (speaking over) How?
PM: Firstly, we will be able to get back control of our own borders, that is absolutely fundamental to our own security . . .
NR: (speaking over) No, that’s good for Britain, and you’ve made that argument day after day.
PM: (speaking over) Yes, but . . .
NR: What happens in Europe is what I’m asking you.
PM: (speaking over) But also, as well as it being a better deal for the UK, it will give the remaining EU states a catalyst for reform. You could see, to the tail end of the Prime Minister’s negotiations, other nations saying, ‘do you know, actually that sounds very sensible, we ought to have some of that to,’ we have tried . . .
NR: (speaking over) So your message to Europe is, is, is . . .
PM: (speaking over) We have tried . . .
NR: . . . we’re walking out the club just to help you.
PM: No, we have tried absolutely everything to get the EU to reform from within, this is our last chance I think to get it to start to get back to its democratic principles, to actually start doing what its nation states need, both in terms of security and economic prosperity, unless we have . . .
NR: (speaking over) Can I ask you one last question if I may . . .
NR: Well, with respect and you are a relatively, you know, junior minister, fairly new to this, can you name a single world leader who agrees with you on this, and let’s leave Donald Trump out shall we?
PM: (laughs) Look, no head of state or Prime Minister or President is going to want to annoy our Prime Minister . . .
NR: (interrupting) What, they’re all saying what they don’t believe . . .
PM: (speaking over) there are a . . . no . . . there is . . .
NR: . . . because they’re being diplomatic.
PM: There is a big, long list of admirals, generals, er, the former head of the CIA, former head of MI6 who think that we will be safer if we leave the EU, rather . . .
NR: (speaking over) Just not every other world leader.
PM: No, but rather than trade job titles, the public want the arguments, that’s what . . .
PM: . . . we need to give them, why we’ll be safer, we need control over our borders, we need the EU to stop undermining our security relationships with the Five Eyes . . .
NR: (speaking over) We’ve got to leave it there, I’m afraid. Penny Mordaunt . . .
PM: . . . that’s why we’ll be safer out.
NR: Thank you for your time.
Photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development