Philip Hammond was noticeably keen this afternoon to show the government isn’t standing idly by while migrants drown in the Mediterranean – especially as the refugee crisis is the global story of the moment; the pictures and reports severe enough to have momentarily knocked the election campaign off a number of front pages.
Appearing on today’s Daily Politics debate on international affairs, the Foreign Secretary stressed the need for a ‘more formidable operation on the sea’, and said that David Cameron would head to Brussels on Thursday to call for an ‘enhanced operation’ to prevent any further crises. Mr Hammond said:
‘Of course we’ve got to support search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Nobody wants to see people drowning in the Mediterranean.
‘A more formidable operation on the sea? Absolutely, yes… The Prime Minister will go to Brussels on Thursday ready to make a commitment of British support to the Triton operation, which is the current EU-financed operation.
‘On the Mare Nostrum programme, we, along with many other EU countries expressed concerns about the way the programme was operating. The question is whether we recognise that there is a need for additional support now on the sea, and we do…The Prime Minister will go to Brussels on Thursday willing to support an enhanced operation on the Mediterranean.’
Has the government performed a U-turn on supporting search and rescue operations? In October last year, Lady Anelay, a Foreign Office minister, told the House of Lords that such operations provided an ‘unintended pull factor’. Mr Hammond insisted the previous opposition to search and rescue referred explicitly to the Italians’ Mare Nostrum operation, but Labour’s Douglas Alexander thought it represented a ‘very significant concession’.
Elsewhere, Ukip’s William Dartmouth badgered Mr Hammond on the international aid budget, while the Lib Dems’ Tim Farron described the Tories’ EU strategy as no less than ‘cretinous’. The Foreign Secretary insisted that treaty change negotiations with the Germans would be possible — and added that, as yet, the Tories had ‘ruled nothing out’ with regards to what recommendation they will make come the promised 2017 referendum. It’s difficult to see David Cameron supporting a Brexit in any circumstances, but one suspects that Mr Hammond could be a leading figure in the ‘out’ campaign if the Prime Minister fails to achieve a significant package of repatriated powers.