Hilary Benn: Brexit ‘makes no sense’ after ‘solidarity’ from Europe over Skripal poisoning

Labour Conference 2021: Chair 'curtailing debate' says guest

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Appearing yesterday at a Labour Party Conference fringe event on Global Britain, the former shadow foreign secretary revealed that “European colleagues that I speak to simply cannot understand why the United Kingdom didn’t want to talk about foreign policies, didn’t want to talk about defence” with them. “And I don’t understand it,” he added.

“We have chosen to walk away from a very important relationship, with our European friends and neighbours.”

Mr Benn added: “When the Russians tried to kill Mr Skripal in Salisbury, as they did […] to whom did we turn for solidarity and support against Russia for its policy of state-sanctioned killing?

“We looked to our European friends and neighbours for solidarity, and that’s why to me it makes no sense.”

In March 2018, Mr Skripal – a former Russian military intelligence office – and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent, Novichok, in Salisbury, which British authorities found to be Russian-developed.

Another British national died of being poisoned by the nerve agent after it was found in a bin, police believe.

In September that year, British authorities identified two Russian nationals, using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as suspects.

Investigative website Bellingcat later stated that it had identified Ruslan Boshirov as being Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Petrov as Dr. Alexander Mishkin, both of Russian military intelligence.

In the aftermath of the poisoning, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council said it “strongly condemns the attack” and expressed its “unqualified solidarity with the UK”.

Despite losing access to the EU’s Schengen Information System II, a database which “allows information exchanges between national border control, customs and police authorities”, as part of Brexit the UK and EU agreed to exchange classified information for security purposes.

Labour shadow minister for the Middle East and Asia Wayne David told the event that he thought it was an “objective necessity” for the UK to “work closely with our European partners” on defence, as well as building alliances elsewhere.

“If Britain is going to exercise any influence in the world for good, then it has to do so through a process of multilateralism,” he said.

“It has to build alliances, cooperations, dialogues with a whole host of different countries.

“Yes, with the United States, but also other countries if possible, and dare I say with the European Union as well.

“We might have left the European Union, but little is said, and hardly anything done about the fact that what we need to do in terms of defence policy, in terms of foreign policy, is work closely on joint policies with our European partners.”

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He added that was “something which some people in the fight for Brexit might find hard to accept.”

Mr David suggested that Britain should “look at formal structures to enhance the relationship that has existed” with the EU.

Despite the “need to develop relationships outside of the apparatus of the European Union”, “for intergovernmental cooperation, you need some sort of structure.”

During the event, Mr Benn described a “low point” for him in the House of Commons when Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the Department for International Development (DfID) as a “giant cashpoint in the sky”.

“I probably knew it before, but that brought it home to me that the Prime Minister knew absolutely nothing at all about what DFID was and did.”

He added: “I thought, maybe naively, that we’d won the argument about our aid spending, and we’d won the argument about our independence.”

In 2020, the PM scrapped DfID, folding it into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr Benn also offered a stark warning about climate change, stating “the challenge we have at the moment with people who are fleeing war and persecution will be as nothing if we don’t get our act together.”

He explained that “if we fail to tackle” global warming, “a lot of the world are going to be moving house.

“People will not stay to drown or die of thirst” in regions that will become inhospitably hot or flood due to rising sea levels, Mr Benn said.

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