Was the idea of the new alliance with new parties in the European Union yours?
We knew we would create a new group. Obviously, it wasn’t our intention to sit unaligned in the European parliament. The whole point of leaving it was to have a new group with a different outlook in some ways on Europe to the EPP, which is federalist grouping, which is why the Conservative Party has never been comfortable in it.
Nor have the Czech Party, the ODS. So we wanted to create a new grouping and that grew naturally from David Cameron’s pledge.
So how did it happen practically?
A lot of people worked on it together. Mark Francois, my outstanding shadow Europe minister, Timothy Kirkhope in the European parliament.
We all had discussions trying to establish a new grouping.
Some said it was impossible, but we did so. The real anchor in that was our realisation with the Czech Civic Democratic Party, the ODS. You will recall in July 2006 we declared with them that we would form a new grouping from 2009. So we didn’t break any commitment we had given to sit with the EPP until 2009.
And then between 2006 and 2009 we looked at other people willing to join that group. And ended up with parties from Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Belgium, Netherlands meeting the necessary numbers.
Is there some work to be done on making these partners more palatable to the British voter? Have you been surprised by the reaction?
I’m not surprised that the other parties in Britain have used this to attack us, often showing a disregard for the position of other countries, the history of other countries.
The Latvian government, we believe have protested on more than one occasion to the Foreign Secretary about the misrepresentation of their country and the position of many parties in their country.
And also Poles who are not necessarily in the Law and Justice Party have complained about the misrepresentation of Poland. But people should be reassured about those sorts of attacks because these are mainstream parties. It is interesting that since the tragic death of President Kaczinski those tributes have largely reflected his role as President of Poland. Often in a unifying role. Certainly not an extremist.
Someone who helped bring a peaceful end to Communism, who has tried to include people in the life of Poland. He was certainly in a mainstream party in Poland. And perhaps out of that tragedy perhaps the tributes paid put things in a different perspective.
It is true that social attitudes change at different paces across different European countries. There are parties that have been, broadly speaking, against gay rights associated with many different European groupings.
That ‘s true of the Latvia First party, which is in the Liberal grouping and it’s true of the Lithuanian Labour Party, which is in the Liberal grouping. And so, do we want social attitudes to change. Yes. But they are changing a lot. The Law and Justice Party has moved on a long way from the days of banning gay pride parades.
The same charge could have been made in the past about the Civic Platform party in Poland, which is the EPP. So on this basis we couldn’t have been in the EPP either.
Is there a job of work to be done to explain the particular difficulties of the East European parties with regard to Communism can be seen as something nationalistic and even antisemitic?
There is a job of education. I have been surprised by the historical ignorance of some of our opponents in Britain, although I think it’s willful ignorance.
I think they are trying to use this rather than being as ignorant as they look, if I can put it that way.
And various charges that should not have been flung, have been flung. I am sure you seen what Rabbi Schudrich has seen about Michal Kaminski. They are very clear about how he is not an antisemite and indeed, knowing the man, I know that he isn’t.
He is part of European Friends of Israel, he had a very good visit to Israel recently and been very well received there. I think the most compelling testimony on this comes from Shevah Weiss, former Speaker of the Knesset and ambassador to Poland, who said: “The whole antisemitism issue has nothing to do with Mr Kaminski. I know this man in person. I was ambassador to the Republic of Poland. His efforts towards Polish-Jewish reconciliation have played a very positive role.”
That’s the former Israeli ambassador to Poland. So I hope your readers won’t fall for what is domestic political propaganda when they have nothing to worry about on this score. And if they had something to worry about I would be among the first to worry about it.
Why did you defend so strongly the record of Mr Topolanek, the former Czech Prime Minister? It is alleged he resigned because of antisemitic and homophobic comments he made.
I wouldn’t defend those. It’s not quite clear what happened. I defend his record as a Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, which I think has been very positive, overall a very good record for the Czech Republic.
I don’t know what he said that has caused the row and if there was anything antisemitic in it we would utterly disassociate ourselves from that. Clearly he has resigned now. But no, I’m not conscious of defending anything ever, ever in my life that was antisemitic, including what he said. But I think his record is very good.
Just to clarify, you are saying that in your experience this is not someone who is an antisemite?
I’ve met him many times and I haven’t ever seen any such traits.
After so long out of power how can you persuade people that you have the experience and the credibility to deal with major areas of foreign policy, the most difficult of which is probably the Middle East peace process?
We have been taking a great deal of interest and spending a lot of time over the whole Middle East region so far as one can as an opposition, within all the confines of the limited resources of opposition. Indeed, I’ve always said to him and other colleagues, we have to be steeped in the Middle East way back to historical matters.
Because you can’t understand it without the history. That’s been one of the failings sometimes about the western governments.
Because many of the problems we will deal with from Iranian nuclear programme to the whole Middle East peace process to all the economic effects on the world that come from the Middle East will stem from there.
We have taken that approach with many visits with continuous contacts with leaders in the region. And with a huge amount of reading and familiarizing ourselves with Middle Eastern affairs. So I have visited Israel of course as shadow foreign secretary but also Syria Jordan Egypt all the Gulf States. We see leaders from the Middle East whenever they come through Britain. So we would come to office with a good degree of understanding of the issue.
When George Mitchell comes through London we have a dinner together and chew over everything together. So we would not be coming to these issues as novices. That doesn’t mean we come to them with golden solutions. No magic solution. But we would come with a consciousness of the importance of the issues, a determination to apply ourselves to them and a reasonable understanding of the background.
There are no profound differences between the parties. So where is your specific sell here?
The most urgent thing is the Iranian nuclear programme. That is emerging for Israel as the main foreign policy issue.
We have consistently been the party arguing for tough sanctions and a strong European approach over the last few years and are very frustrated that that hasn’t emerged strongly enough.
The Conservative Party has been the most specific over several years about what we should do about adopting the same financial sanctions as the United States on Iran, on looking for European agreement on stopping investment in oil and gas fields in Iran.
We’re very disappointed that Gordon Brown has twice announced such sanctions when they haven’t been implemented at all which reduces the credibility of western policy towards Iran when statements like that are made. I think thatis a very urgent issue.
Unlike the Liberal Democrats we don’t say you rule out for ever any military action. Howeverm, we are not calling for that.
The way I usually put it is that Iran getting nuclear bomb may be a calamity, although military action may be calamitous. This is why we need peaceful pressure.
But to simply take all military efforts off the table is reducing the pressure on Iran. So we do have a difference between the Liberals on one side and Labour and Conservatives on the other in policy towards Iran.
I don’t think there has been a strong enough British engagement with the peace process in recent times. I think it’s been stalled without much British attempt to help kickstart it.
Is there a sense that perhaps ideological common ground, with Likud and Binyamin Netanyau, might help in terms of your relationship with the Israeli government?
You can overstress the ideological common ground. Comparing Israeli parties with British or American parties is quite hard to do.
Of course I’ve known Mr Netanyahu for a long time – back from when I was leader of the party. At that time he was Prime Minister during his first stint. Do we know the Israeli leaders, yes we do. I have met Mr Lieberman once, I wouldn’t say we have a close relationship.
But we have had a discussion. Yes, we would attempt to use those relationships. Yes, we are friends of Israel. We are concerned that if a two-state solution is not arrived at soon, then it will never be.
And that that would not be in the long-term interests of Israel and that is why we want to see all parties involved being prepared to negotiate. It is very difficult. We ourselves do not have any dealings with Hamas.
And we want to see some concrete movement on their part towards the acceptance of the quartet principles before we could have any dealings with them. We realize Israel has that great difficulty, that there is a significant part of the Palestinian community that it is not able to deal directly with.
But nevertheless we do think there are good interlocutors such as Salam Fayed. There are many sensible Palestinian leaders who do want to make peace with Israel. So it must be possible to take matters forward.
Like the current government we don’t approve of expanding settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem because it makes that two-state solution more difficult. With a new government there could be a sense of new momentum. We don’t have any magic new solution.
We would want to work with the United States, with George Mitchell involved, with Arab states. Because it is not just to the Israelis that we say this must be resolved. It’s an important message to the whole Arab world as well.
In the past you have been prepared to be critical of Israel. And how important is that to you? To be able to say to a friend and ally – over Gaza or Operation Cast Lead or the invasion of Lebanon- how does one find the right words to be critical if necessary but remain essentially a friend?
On the merits of the situation. I was critical of the Lebanon War in 2006. And actually from a slightly difference angle most Israelis ended up very critical of that war. One of the reasons I was critical of it was that I didn’t believe it would be effective in defeating Hezbollah.
And that attacks much more widely across Lebanon which was seen as part of the military effort against Hezbollah were damaging Israel in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of everyone else in the Lebanon. So we felt it right to be critical of that.
We took a different approach, but then the merits of the case were difference in Operation Cast Lead. We wanted a ceasefire but we stressed it needed to be a ceasefire on both sides. Israel was under rocket attack and that it was very important for both sides to respect such a ceasefire.
Yes, it is always difficult to find the right words. But I’m entirely happy looking back, with the positions we have taken. I think when I’ve been to Israel people understand that. When I did the Balfour Declaration dinner in Tel Aviv at the end of 2008, people understood the criticism.
They weren’t necessary pleased that I made the criticism, but they saw that in the context of an overall friendship between Britain and Israel and they understood that.
What about the Goldstone report?
Goldstone raised some important issues which all concerned have to address. And of course democracies and free societies are held to high standards and should be.
We make no exception of our own government in that regard. We have had many arguments with our own government about our own moral authority over rendition flights and guidance over the treatment of detainees.
We have that debate within this country. So of course we want Israel to adhere to very high standards. It our view that it is better to be clear about these things even if some people are going to disagree with you that it is to try to dodge the issue.
Our quarrel with our government over the Goldstone report was not over the overall reaction to the report but to their abject failure to vote or even to abstain at the UN. We would have voted against the motion because it did not attribute any responsibility to Hamas.
Unlike the report itself which did take Hamas to task, quite rightly, the motion before the UN committee did not do that so we would have voted against that and explained to Arab nations and some others that the reason we were doing that is because it was not a balanced motion.
It was not a fair motion. So I hope that in office we would be a bit more decisive and clear about these things. And if people disagree with you then it is better to be respected for that than truing to please everyone and end up pleasing nobody.
What is your strategy to deal with the rise of radical Islam?
It’s almost always vital to maintain relations with states. And so some people in Israel would say it’s very difficult to have relations with Syria. I think it’s very important for us to try to detach Syria from Iran.
It may be a long and painstaking process. So I went to Damascus in June 2007 before any Foreign Office minister went because I think the Syrians need to know they have got people they can talk to, over a long time.
Hopefully those people are the same actual people. That matters to them. And so there years ahead of coming into government we will have started that dialogue with Syria.
I think it is different with a group like Hamas, which does not accept any of the normal responsibilities of being a state. Of recognizing borders or any of the previous agreements or the legitimacy of its neighbours or foreswearing violence.
It’s only effective keeping a distance from such people if the international community does it together. But that is the policy of the whole Quartet so that is something we support.
But I should stress along with that, if they change then we change that attitude.
In the end they will have to acknowledge that they will have to do reasonable business with the rest of the world and Israel. But at the moment they haven’t reached that point, and part of the pressure on them to reach that point is the international community keeping its distance from them.
At the same time we will do everything we can to counter radicalisation that leads to terrorism and violence in this country and abroad. I’m very disappointed that one of the reductions in Foreign Office spending last was a reduction in spending on counter-radicalisation work in Pakistan.
How do you deal with a totalitarian movement that is on the rise but has a representative power?
You have to know about it and understand it, but it is not normally our role to get involved with the internal politics of a friendly nation like Egypt.
I don’t think we have much of a role in the internal affairs of Egypt. We have a role as soon as it is a source of conflict. We have a role in Gaza. We can recommend what should be done.
And we would say to Israel that they should be getting more supplies and humanitarian aid into Gaza because one of the few global attitude surveys showed that only a third of the population of Gaza has a supportive opinion of Hamas. And it’s very important to stop the next generation being radicalized and feeling they are under a permanent deliberate siege.
And again we don’t differ from the current government on this. We would prefer to see more humanitarian aid getting in to Gaza and people leading a better life there. We shouldn’t see them all as terrorists. It’s a more complicated situation than that.
What about when foreign policy comes home?
In process terms, this and many other challenges require the Foreign Office to be much more at the centre of government than it has been. I think the Foreign Office has been sidelined, often demoralised and left out of decisions in recent times. David Cameron and I are determined to put that right.
And it requires a close personal and political relationship between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, which there hasn’t been for a long time. That is important just as it is between a Prime Minister and a Chancellor.
So we would bring that into government – and then institutionally the National Security Council approach we favour does bring together foreign policy challenges and national and domestic security seen as a coherent whole.
The government says that they already have a committee. But we mean a real centre of decision-making on all national security an international relations issues, chaired by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary with a National Security Adviser who is also the Prime Minister’s principle foreign policy adviser. So that these things really are looked at in the round.
And what does that mean for domestic affairs affected by foreign policy? It certainly means we have to communicate the foreign policy of the country more effectively at home because Britain is a force for settling differences in the Middle East, for bringing peace to the Middle East.
For making sure that alongside a secure Israel there is a viable prosperous Palestinain state. And I’m not sure people always understand that – that we and other allied nations are doing our utmost to bring that about.
So we do have to from the top of government communicate that to the whole of Britain. And then we have to be firm. That’s why we want to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, something the Labour government said they wanted to do in the past but never felt able to do.
We have to show there is an intolerance of intolerance in this country. There’s always room for political debate in this country but not for preaching hate and extremism. So we will be tough on that and give a moral lead as well.
I was appalled when I was in Manchester a few months ago addressing the Israeli Chamber of Commerce dinner in Manchester that Israel’s deputy ambassador had been unable to get to Manchester University to give a speech.
Now that requires a much stringer response from the university authorities and from law enforcement authorities to make sure we have freedom of speech. To make sure that the representatives of a friendly nation are not howled down.
We would want to give a string moral lead and practical lead in terms of the government really saying we have to make sure people can speak freely, but not freely in terms of promoting hatred. At the moment it is tilting the wrong way.
A lot of what David Cameron has been talking about is bringing communities together. Part of the idea of our national citizens’ service is to make young people of very different backgrounds spend time together given that they don’t naturally now do so in Britain.
A good relationship in Europe makes it difficult to have a relationship with America – so where do you fit in the Middle East negotiations?
That is a bit desperate to make that argument when you see David Cameron had an excellent meeting with President Sarkozy last month, and I was so well-received in Berlin last month to meet the new foreign minister. Angela Mekel actually invited David Cameron to Germany during the election campaign but we didn’t feel David could leave the country.
David’s relationship with President Obama is very strong. I had a great meeting with Hillary Clinton a few months ago.
I think it’s quite rare that an opposition has developed such string relationships.
Of course we’ve had this four-year run-in with stable personnel. We really have developed for an opposition an exceptional range and knowledge and relationships with other countries. So all that is ready there to deploy.
And we don’t need to take lectures about contacts with other countries from ministers who have failed to deal with the universal jurisdiction problem despite saying it was urgent in December, despite having full support from the opposition to do something about it.
So it will fall to us if we are elected to deal with that, which we will so that we can continue to have Israeli leaders visit this country. Something that David Miliband has been too weak to bring about.