Now Reading:
A discussion with Sir Malcolm Rifkind – english version
Full Article 29 minutes read

Pour accéder à la version française de l’interview, suivez ce lien. 


Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Minister of State for Europe between 1983 and 1986, after which he joined Margaret Thatcher’s government as Secretary of State for Scotland. From 1992 to 1997, he successively served as Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Sir Malcom Rifkind was finally appointed Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee in 2010, a post he held until 2015.


Throughout the interview, we benefited from Sir Malcom Rifkind’s insight on the thorny issue of Brexit as well as his considerable expertise in related topics of internal and strategic relations.


On behalf of the entire Nemrod team, we wish to thank Sir Malcom Rifkind very warmly for this fascinating conversation.




Interview by Camille de la Rochère and François Gaüzère-Mazauric, November 23rd, 2018, London.

Contributions from Sara Valeri, Solène Moitry and Benjamin Helman.




You were the Minister of State for Europe during the 1980s. How do you feel about the recent events?


It was always going to be a very difficult negotiation, because it is asymmetric. Normally you have two people negotiating: each one has its own objectives, is willing to make certain compromises and has a certain leverage. In the case of Brexit, it is very different, in three ways: first, the United Kingdom has not just been negotiating with the European Commission but also with twenty-seven countries. Secondly, once article 50 is being initiated, the clock is ticking because we technically leave in March 2019, so if the negotiations are slow, that is more of a problem for us than for the European Union. And thirdly, we are the demanders.


The final problem has been that usually in a negotiation, each side makes compromises but does not reveal its flexibility until the very end, when the final concessions come out to make the deal. We have had some of that, however the problem for the United Kingdom has not been the EU but our own parliament, our own press and the media. Which compromise are you prepared to make and how much will you be willing to agree in this deal? From the very beginning, these have been the real questions. The British government has been under this sort of pressure, as opposed to the European Commission which has just been left to negotiate. All this is background.


We now have a deal, both the withdrawal treaty and the political declaration. It is not perfect from either sides’ point of view, and it is not a surprise. My personal view is that it deserves to be supported, and I want to see it achieved. And I think the British public generally will say, “look, this has been long enough, we now have got an agreement”.


Now that a deal has been negotiated with the EU, three types of scenarios could ensue from the parliamentary vote: first, a deal reject, which seems unlikely; secondly the Parliament could ask for further negotiations on substantive points; thirdly it may raise but modest points barely changing the general frame of the deal. What do you think?


There is no secret answer that we could clearly identify. What we can say is that when the Government goes to Parliament in early December, it will need 325 members of Parliament on its side out of 650. It is unlikely that it reaches this goal, at least on the beginning, for there is a significant number of Conservatives hard brexiteers in the House— probably not more than thirty of forty, which is still quite important —as well as ten Northern Irish (who normally support the government). If these groups vote with the Labour party and the opposition party, the Government is defeated.


And yet for Government, it will not be the end of the day. The upcoming vote could be the first one of a series — who knows? There is no law. This is not like a referendum, which you take a year to plan because it is unique. On the contrary, votes on the Parliament can be organised several times if needed.


Opponents to the Government face problems as well, especially the Conservative hard-brexiteers. If I were one of them just now, I would be saying to my colleagues: “We have to be careful, we might win the battle but lose the war”. The war is not about the deal; the war is about “Is Britain leaving the European Union in March of next year?”. If the Government wins the vote, and the deal is agreed, there is nothing to stop our departure in March of next year — there are no more permissions required, no more votes, no more procedures, it will just automatically happen. This is what the Brexiteers want, this is the big objective. Compared to that, and even if it is important, the deal is about detail.


In order to win the battle, the hard Brexiteers have to combine with people they like even less than the Government. They have to vote for Mr Corbyn and the Labour party, with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists, who have completely different objectives. These groups think the Government is going too far. They want either to stay in the European Union, or the softest possible Brexit. So the Labour party’s official policy is to claim “We should leave the EU but have a permanent customs union”. Liberal democrats and Scottish Nationalists have different views: some of them would like a second referendum, others want a Norway deal (which means staying into the internal market). Yet, none of them wants “no deal”, which Mr Rees-Mogg and Mr Johnson would prefer. What is the point of defeating the Government on something you do not like, if you are going to end up with something you like even less?


Winston Churchill — although not talking about Brexit — once said that “politicians should never commit suicide, because they might live to regret it.”


What does that mean? I can offer two or three scenarios, and they may sound different than what you were expecting me to say. First of all, you have to remember how Parliament will vote. When the day comes, it will not just be: “this is the Government’s deal, we now vote for or against”. This is not the way Parliament functions. The Government will put down a motion in Parliament inviting it to approve its deal. Let us assume that the Labour Party, as the main opposition, will put down an amendment saying Parliament prefers customs union. The Nationalists, Liberals will put down other amendments saying they want a Norway deal or a second referendum, or just to stay in the EU. These are all going to be voted on.


As you know, Britain does not have a written constitution but it does have long-standing conventions which the speaker of Parliament has to respect when he makes the decision. As the normal convention states, if there are a government motion and amendments, the amendments are put under vote first, and only after comes the main motion. Indeed if any of these amendments are carried, the main motion already has to be amended.


Unless they do it differently this time, the first vote will be on the Labour Party’s amendment regarding the customs union, for they are the main opposition. When that vote happens, the hard Brexiteers will vote along with the Government because they do not want a permanent customs union. The Irish will vote with the Government as well, so the Labour party amendment will be defeated.


Then the vote will be about a second referendum, or a Norway deal. They will be defeated considered that there is very little support for any of these two. Eventually there is only one more vote left: the Government’s proposal or “no deal”. This is a much more difficult choice, more particularly for the Labour Party. Hard Brexiteers do not mind “no deal” — they consider that they can live with the rules of the World Trade Organisation, that they are not so bad. The Labour party views it differently, and so do the Liberals and the Nationalists.


If they voted against the deal, they would “commit suicide and have to live to regret it”…


Correct. If the vote was purely “deal” or “no deal”, the “no deal” would at most get a hundred MP’s vote — perhaps even less in my opinion. Five hundred will not vote for it, that is, all the Labour party, the Liberals, the Nationalists, the Irish, and at least half the Conservatives — maybe two thirds. So “no deal” is not going to happen. One way or another, there is going to be a deal. So the only question is: will it be in December?


Once they’ve got rid of the amendments, they should accept (not enthusiastically) that the Government’s proposal is better than the alternative.


And still, there is a possibility for the government to be defeated – even if it is not the most probable…


If the MP’s are not yet ready to accept the Government’s deal and the Government is defeated, it is still not the end of it. The Prime Minister will say “I hear what Parliament has said; I will spend the next two weeks seeing what the possibilities are for further amendments to the deal. I am not very optimistic but I will do my best.” And she may be able to get one or two details changed, different phrases, different languages. In my personal view, it is inconceivable that the EU open up a new negotiation. Why should they?


She will come back to Parliament, probably around early January, and say: “I’m sorry, it is either my deal or no deal”. What might be more likely to cut change would be the Labor Party abstaining. However, if they refuse to abstain, I would be very confident that thirty to forty Labour MP’s will urge their leader Jeremy Corbyn not to risk a “no deal”, and either abstain or vote alongside the Government. This is a quite long answer, but these subjects are important.


An economic downturn subsequent to Brexit may spur the British government to cut military expenses and entrust the United States with its security in the framework of NATO. Do you fear such a development of the “special relationship”?


No. Definitely not. I think this goes back to the question of whether the Brexit decision is similar to Trump’s claim “America first” and his wish to be slightly isolationist. This has got nothing to do with that. The only comparison between Brexit and Trump is that in both cases, the elites were defeated by the people.


International press has tried to deepen the comparison, using the elite’s defeat as a common factor…


It is foolish. First, Britain is not America; we are a European country. De Gaulle said “UK is a European country; it is just a different kind of European country” and it is a good remark (laughs). It is not just that: yes, we have a very close relationship with the United States, that I hope will continue, given our historic and cultural background. However, on a range of issues, it has become more difficult with Donald Trump than with any previous American President — Democrat or Republican.


This is quite the same for a number of other European countries…


Of course. And people might be surprised how, on most of these issues, Britain stands along with Europe and not Trump. We believe in free trade; we do not believe in tariffs. It is not even an issue; even Mr Corbyn believes in free trade. It has not been an issue in British politics in a hundred years. We are more believers in free-trade than the French — forgive me (laughs).


We also believe in a rule-based international order, which France and Germany, and Europe do as well, but President Trump does not. In terms of foreign policy, we have expressed our disagreement on most of his controversial initiatives. We are working closely with France and Germany on the Iran nuclear deal, on the question of Jerusalem being recognised as the capital of Israël, on climate change… A whole range of issues.


Trump has gone one way, and we said we did not agree. Not merely because we want to be nice to France and Germany, but because our geopolitical judgment is the same as that of Western Europe. That is very profound. What it means is that when Theresa May says “we are leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe” (and she often does), this has geopolitical significance. That is not just discussing geography; that is about politics as well.


Coming back on the point you raised about the military, the only pressure the British government has been under in the last years has been to increase defence spending. It will not reduce it. Even if it wanted to, which is not the case, its own party would not let it, including me. To take but one example, our bilateral military relation with France is better than it has ever been.


As former Secretary of State for Scotland, to which extent do you think the Brexit deal could foster Scottish independence?


This is what the Nationalists would like; but it is not going to happen, at least not in a foreseeable future, for several reasons. The main reason is technical: Scotland wishes to be independent in order to join or rejoin the European Union and benefit from the internal market, which accounts for about 20% of Scottish exports, while about 60% go to the United Kingdom. The most important single market for Scotland is the British one — just as for Ireland. They have been a Union of three hundred years, so in economic trade terms, it simply does not make sense. Of course Scotland would like to have the best of both worlds, and it is true that Scots voted to remain in the EU, but so did London.


Mrs Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, thought she would be able to use at her advantage the fact that Scotland voted to remain, as opposed to England: it should prove that they are different countries, they have different destinies, and therefore another referendum should take place. This position was so unpopular that in the last general elections, Scotland was the only part of UK where the Conservative party had progressed.


We have won a total of thirteen seats in Scotland. We used to have only one. Hence the issue of whether or not there should be a second referendum on independence. People said  “We have already had a referendum; the majority was 55% to 45% to remain part of the United Kingdom. The Nationalists promised this referendum would decide this matter for fifty years; we do not want another referendum”. So I do not think it will happen.


Do you think the Scottish National Party will keep voting against the deal despite the unpopularity of its position? 


They will certainly start off voting against, but they will experience the same problem as the Labour party: the last thing they want is no deal at all. So what we were discussing earlier is relevant to them as well. My guess is that they could be uncomfortable voting with the Government and could abstain—who knows?


Are you not afraid that Brexit strongly undermines the Anglo-French relationship in the long-run?


Only if either France or Britain want that, but the evidence is that they do not. President Macron has made it clear: he strongly wants the close relationship to get even closer and that is our view as well.


There are differences of view, about the European army and so forth, but that is not new. The interesting thing I noticed as a former Defence Minister is that, in the past, people could call for all sorts of European armies knowing the British would veto it. We are no longer going to be around to veto it. You want a European army, you’re going to get one then, let us see what happens. And I am not sure what happens.


If a European defence structure were to materialise, what would be the British government’s initial response to it?


Our concern is that we are not part of the European Union. If the European Union countries want to integrate their armed forces, that is their problem, and we have no right to interfere. However, our view is that they must be very careful, for two reasons. First of all, do they wish to weaken NATO? Some people in Europe may not mind that, but most of Europe does mind it: Germany does not want to weaken NATO; Poland and the Dutch neither. France seems more measured for historical reasons.


But there is a much more fundamental reason, which is not for me to decide: we cannot have a European army without having a European State. The idea of having a European army run by twenty-seven sovereign States is absurd. It is similar to the single currency: it can be created, but once it has been, a body actually has to decide whether to use it or not.


What I suspect will going to end up is something called a “European army” that is not.


Would it then take the shape of a financial or industrial agreement?


It would be what we have at the moment, but probably with a grander name.


On the contrary, NATO does not have an army. Countries promise to allocate part of their military capability in the event of a conflict. In that sense you can consider that NATO has the capability. It is also recognised that the United States would be the supreme commander in any use of NATO forces because they provide a vast proportion of the capability.


When it comes to the European level, President Macron and others have appeared to be suggesting that the European Union should now have a European army. But at the very least you have to be a federal State to have an army. I do not see where that debate is taking place.


This is one of the things that have made me less enthusiastic about the European Union. Political leaderships in France and Germany or elsewhere are not prepared to recognise the anomaly of what they are creating. We saw this on the single currency: they say two separate things, while pretending this is only one thing. We have a single currency, but somehow, this does not mean we are moving towards the United States of Europe, which we still do not want. But in reality, step by step, people begin talking about a banking union, a fiscal union, all the things that are necessary.


For example, for the single currency, it can only work if you have different economic standards of living and if you are willing to have the rich countries subsidizing the poor countries through fiscal transfers. This is what Roosevelt’s New deal was in the 1930s: all the poorest parts of America with high unemployment got federal financial support. This is what happens in the United Kingdom: the North of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which are poorer than the South East, get higher public expenditure.


European Union has a regional policy but it is trivial: sums involved are too small and yet, twenty countries are now locked into the single currency.


Single currency is not the topic of our discussion but the dilemma is similar: do not talk about European armies unless you are prepared to acknowledge that it means moving towards a European State.


Like Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel said to the European Parliament: “we need to have a European army”. It would have made a lot more sense if she had said “we need to have much closer European cooperation on capabilities and standards so that our equipment can be mutually usable”. An army has to be commanded; it cannot have multiple commands. A European army would need a single command structure.


This European army could also be perceived as an answer to President Trump’s attacks against multilateralism, most notably made in his UN address last September…


I do not agree but this is a good argument. It implies that, because of Donald Trump, we no longer have the luxury of being twenty-seven different countries. We now must become, in some way, a federal Europe. But political leadership should not be ambiguous. When I was Foreign Minister, Jacques Chirac was President of France, and before him was Mitterrand, but the same has been true with Sarkozy and Hollande, and Macron: French governments are much more ambiguous as to their attitude to sovereignty than the German, because the French are much more conscious of their national interests; they see things more like the Brits do, as a balance between the national and the international. And yet — forgive me — they keep coming up with aspirations and slogans and policies while recognizing that you can only deliver these policies if you are prepared to substantially reduce your sovereignty in an unprecedented way.


The United Kingdom has often been considered as NATO’s best ally in Europe and yet, it has expressed its readiness to be a part of EU’s defence initiatives. What do you think is UK’s current position as to the construction of a European defence?


Most of defence is obviously more NATO than the European Union, but it is for the European Union countries to decide what degree of enhanced collaboration and cooperation they wish to have. We positively wish to be cooperating with them, as long as it does not weaken NATO. NATO is our prime reference point on defence policy. NATO, and the Americans themselves, like European cooperation, they are not against it in principle. The more Europe cooperates, the better value for money it gets. If you add up the defence budgets of all European countries, it sounds a lot, but if you translate it into military capabilities it is not very impressive.


Therefore it does make sense to rationalise it. You can do it in two ways: the most dramatic one would be to create a European army. If that is not politically feasible or desirable, you can still standardise, over a period of time, all your equipment. Every time you are buying a new tank, a new ship, a new aircraft, each country uses the same design. It takes time, but gradually, in a 20 or 30 years time, you would end up with identical military capabilities, which means being able to integrate combat immediately in the event of a major war. During that period you could have much more joint training.


There are all sorts of ways to improve a situation short of a European army; but you should not call it a European army unless that is what it is. Otherwise it seems misleading to me.


France seems to be torn between its bilateral relationship with the UK on defence, based on the Lancaster House Treaties, and President Macron’s political argument in favor of an enhanced European defence. Isn’t it difficult to conciliate both?


Maybe it should not be that difficult. It is like the debate on the future foreign policy post Brexit: whether or not to have a EU+1. It was the case in the Iran nuclear deal when Germany joined the permanent members of the Security Council for the purpose of negotiation [Red. : P5 + 1 format]. We could do the same on foreign and defence policy. It is easier on defence because we are all part of NATO, so there already is a forum for combined discussion. If there is a political will, it will not be difficult, because the key to European defence are France and Britain. They are the only two countries that have significant military capabilities, not just in terms of budget, but also of military use and experience. Many other countries have contributed in a very useful way, but only modestly.


We have not talked about it yet, but a similarly relevant dimension is nuclear weapons. If Donald Trump or some future American president is not so absolute in the willingness to commit American nuclear forces for the protection of Europe (following article 5 of the NATO treaty), then nobody will want a proliferation of nuclear weapon States in Europe. Nobody will want a German nuclear weapon, including the Germans; or an Italian or Spanish or Polish one. Fortunately Europe has two nuclear countries who are cooperating on nuclear weapon doctrine more than ever before.


Even if it is extremely unlikely, we have to think hard about what we would do if Trump or some successor said “Sorry, we are no longer prepared to commit America to the defence of Europe”. I think that Angela Merkel was unwise to imply in her speech in May 2017 that we had reached that moment; that, today, we could no longer rely on the United States. I think that is not true. I once asked a senior Republican senator if there were any issue at all on which Republican senators would refuse to follow Trump. He answered “Yes, there is one issue: NATO. If any president seriously tried to damage or destroy NATO, I can only think of one Republican senator who could support it”. So I do not think the issue is immediate.


However there is a lot of common sense in calling for cooperation enhancement as France and Britain do, and start thinking of “what if?”.


Do you think Britain will always choose NATO over a common European structure?


If we ever have to choose between NATO and a European structure, we will choose NATO. If it implied some military operation which Europe itself, with the approval of the United States, would want to take the responsibility for, we would consider it depending on whether the operation requires serious military capability. If it were purely peacekeeping or humanitarian effort or something of the sort, there would be no problem; Europe is already doing something like that and it does it well. But if it were something that might involve serious combat, then we would be crazy not to use the Americans as well. Even Britain and France do not have that much capability, depending on who the enemy is.


If we are forced to, we will choose NATO, not Europe.


The Jopling report suggested to adapt article 5 to hybrid warfare. Do you think it is the way NATO’s doctrine should evolve, if it should?


You are raising a good point. We certainly want to send to Moscow the message: “Do not assume that you can be as aggressive as you would like as long as you do not send the Russian army across the border”. We have seen that in Eastern Ukraine, where the Russians denied involvement… You can respond without article 5. This article is meant to be the most serious response; it would normally imply a territorial attack. But Russia has already been responsible for a massive cyber attack on Estonia [in 2007]. Thought has to be given as to a proper response for aggressions of that type, which do not constitute a territorial invasion.


That comes in lots and lots of different steps. I think it is valuable to try and keep article 5 for the most serious threats. The article means that you are going to go to war, and nobody wants that. It corresponds to 1914, when countries overreacted to the archduke’s assassination, and ended up in the First World War. Article 5 is not suitable for Eastern Ukraine. It is something you keep in reserve for the worst cases.


And do you think NATO’s organisation is adapted?


Thanks to Mr Putin, it is much more adapted than it would have been. Putin has done NATO a service. He has woken people up after the “end of History”; and History has begun again. In that sense, I think NATO is reasonably adapted.


How do you feel about the rise of cyberattacks?


Cyberattacks are clearly going to be part of our way of life. They are much more difficult to respond to than conventional attacks. Usually in a conventional attack, you can be a hundred percent certain of who is responsible, while in cyber, even if you think you know, proving it is much more difficult. Another factor is that offensive cyber can sometimes be in the public interest. Imagine if Stuxnet (this malware used by the Americans and Israelis to stop the Iranians enriching uranium) had been a hundred percent successful: the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis would have been resolved without a shot being fired, without sanctions being needed. Now imagine if cyber-offensive worked in North Korea. Americans have almost certainly been responsible for some of the missiles that crashed on take-off during North Korean test missiles… If the Americans could, that would be an example of cyber-offensive resolving the North Korean crisis in a very peaceful way.


We often consider as cyber offensives Russians’ attempts to destroy critical national infrastructures, which it does include. But we have to be more comprehensive in our approach. If the Russians and the Chinese are in a talking mood, I hope that at least they begin to apply some protocols. But it is going to be difficult. We are not here yet.


Talking about North Korea: what is your take on Trump’s strategy there?


President Trump had one meeting with Kim Jong Un, after which he claimed that North Korea was not longer a nuclear threat. There is not the slightest evidence of that at the moment, apart from one thing: a better relationship between North Korea and South Korea. It has to be welcomed in many ways, but what we do not know is whether this is simply a tactic by Kim-Jong Un to strengthen himself while keeping developing his nuclear weapons, or whether it is something more profound. Given the nature of the man, and his history, I am suspicious rather than hopeful.


What do you think of the United States’ attitude towards Iran?


I think the Americans are perfectly entitled to say that the Iranians remain responsible for supporting terrorist organisations like Hezbollah. These criticisms are justified: it is a very aggressive State, that ultimately tried to destroy Israel. Where President Trump was wrong, in my view, was in rejecting the Iran nuclear deal as a way forward.


Curiously, because the Europeans have refused to follow Trump, the situation we end up in is not so bad for the time being: the Americans are able to put much more pressure on Iran than through sanctions. So far the Iranians have not felt it desirable to resume their nuclear program because they do not find it desirable to alienate France, Britain, and Germany. It was not what Trump had intended.


It is not sure whether European countries will be able to keep trading without using the dollar and exposing themselves to American sanctions…


It is a very technical issue, but for the time being, the Iranians are maintaining their promise not to develop a nuclear enrichment program, and to do what they were required under the deal, even though the Americans have repudiated it. The problem of Donald Trump is that although he does the right thing, it is for the wrong reason; and when he does the wrong things, it occasionally produces some benefits…

Input your search keywords and press Enter.