BBC HARDtalk interview: David Owen rebuffs Brexit scaremongering

BBC HARDtalk interview January 2017

Interview with Stephen Sackur. First shown: 2:30am 4 Jan 2018, available for 11 months. Duration 24 mins

(At approx. 14 minutes:) “Why do we spend our whole time doing ourselves down? Why do we have, day after day, newspaper stories aimed at demoralising and sharpening (opposition)? Who are these people who can’t take defeat in a referendum? Who spend their whole time on this issue?

“There is a positive story. We are a great country still, we have a great deal of courage, enterprise and energy in our young people… they are much more turning their hand to this challenge in front of us…

“I don’t understand why we should spend our whole time questioning the very judgement of the British people who decided they wanted to leave the EU. Is that the role of the elite? …of some MPs who weren’t able to win? Or are we prepared to live with the result and make a success of it?….

“(in the last election) Labour got many many votes in the North of England from people in who wanted to leave the EU… Labour should focus itself on getting a good result of leaving the EU – all of us should…”

“…defence expenditure has to be increased. There can be no ifs or buts about that. … Europe has been freeloading on the United States, as far as NATO is concerned, for long enough. Britain, coming out of the EU, has to demonstrate to the Americans that we are committed to NATO’s defence.

Lord Owen, speaking in the House of Lords Debate on UK Defence Forces, 23 November 2017.

Download the speech here: HLDefenceDebate23.11.17 

My Lords, the issue before us all is that defence expenditure has to be increased. There can be no ifs or buts about that. For the next five years, the National Security Council will have to find an increase from 2% to 2.5% as the bare minimum. That body is looking at cyber, development, defence and foreign policy. It is the right body to give a remit to this new review that it will be funded to this extent. Without that, frankly, it will not be serious.

Europe has been freeloading on the United States, as far as NATO is concerned, for long enough. Britain, coming out of the EU, has to demonstrate to the Americans that we are committed to NATO’s defence. Without that, we will not maintain the support of the American people for their commitment to NATO. Everything that we see indicates that that is vital. Why?

President Putin has admitted that he considered putting Russian nuclear forces on full alert at the time of maximum tension over Crimea, which shows how unwise it is to assume that Russian nuclear strategies are anywhere near the same as ours in NATO. It is also true that President Putin has threatened to base nuclear forces in Crimea and that he has deployed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in the Baltic Sea which neighbours Poland and Lithuania. I do not wish to exaggerate—Russian Federation military power is far less than that of the old USSR. The relevant concern we have is the growth in the belief among informed NATO military opinion that Russian conventional forces are now able to punch a hole in NATO’s conventional defences, particularly in the Baltic region. This is the rational case for increased NATO defence spending. Not to allow it is, in my view, to put NATO’s whole deterrent strategy at risk.

It is also vital that in this review we look at the role of the aircraft carrier. Aircraft carriers are huge and hugely expensive, so we have to find a way of making a contribution worldwide through a rapid reaction force committed not only to NATO but, more importantly, to the UN. It should operate worldwide from Oman, and be part of a global British strategy for the next decade that will be beneficial to us in achieving greater prosperity and a global profile. In that context, we must look at the amphibious forces. What is envisaged for the Royal Marines, and for the ships that are necessary, raises very serious questions. How many of us were pleased about the intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000? Without that amphibious capability, our capacity to intervene would have been negligible—in fact, the intervention would have been so dangerous that we could not have undertaken it.

There are big tasks ahead. We now have an integrated structure that looks at our overall international policy. If that means we have to take more from the overseas budget, I would, extremely reluctantly, accept it. There are ways of achieving it within the normal rules, provided that they are changed. For instance, the HMS “Ocean” mission to the British Virgin Islands during the emergency was not a defence expenditure and should be met out of the foreign aid budget. It is ridiculous to be told that OECD rules imply that we cannot use our foreign aid budget because this country was previously considered to be a medium-sized economy. A lot of those OECD rules are out of date and if they cannot be changed, we have to change them unilaterally. The foreign aid budget is potentially extremely important, but day after day we hear how it is grotesquely badly used. The British public will not go on accepting that. It may be that the House of Commons does not have the willpower to change the present resolution, but we in this House have a responsibility to remind Commons Members of their responsibility to the defence of Europe and not to allow this burden to be borne only by the American people.

Download the speech here: HLDefenceDebate23.11.17

We are on the threshold of another war in the Middle East involving Lebanon and the surrounding countries. It is imperative that Russia and the US start a process to help stabilise the region

Lord Owen’s speech to the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, delivered Thursday 16 November 2017.

Download the full text hereLordOwenMoscowSpeech

In the speech, Lord Owen argues “We are on the threshold of another war in the Middle East involving Lebanon and the surrounding countries. It is imperative that Russia and the US start a process to help stabilise the region using the P5 +1 mechanism with others – a mechanism that has worked in the past over Iran.”

Lord Owen will say “Russia will, in my view, only play the constructive role that it could in its new position, with a military airfield close to Lebanon, if we in the other four nations in 5+1 – Germany, France, US and the UK – offer to enter into a constructive dialogue in the area, above all, which is of immediate concern for Russia, namely east Ukraine and Crimea. A readiness to establish formal 5+1 negotiations for the settlement of not only these boundary disputes but also involving those near Moldova, namely Transnistria. Also Georgia, Nagorno Karabakh and even perhaps Kosovo, could be a way of unblocking the present stand off in negotiating directly with Ukraine and sets the dialogue in terms of other boundary changes.”

“Patiently, persuasively and persistently in the P5+1 on Eastern Europe and on the Middle East, deals can be made that, balanced across these two separate regions, could help to rebuild the relationship between Russia and the US and involve Iran in the context of Russian help in stabilising the Middle East.”

“We need Presidents Putin and Trump to authorise this process and the sooner the better and start to develop a measure of regard for each other’s domestic arrangements. They will not repair all the strains and stresses quickly, but a civilized dialogue can and must be restored.”

The International Community and Iran: “Putin… has more to gain for Russia from becoming an overall peace negotiator with the US and to help the Middle East as a region… 

Lord Owen speaking to a Conference on ‘The Iranian Challenge in Multiple Areas’, Tel Aviv University, 6 November 2017.

“There will be no peace in the Middle East if Russia sides with the Iran-Alawite-Hezbollah axis alone. Yet Putin, at the moment, has every reason to continue to focus attention on them but he has more to gain for Russia from becoming an overall peace negotiator with the US and to help the Middle East as a region build its own strategic consensus.”

Read the full text here: Tel Aviv speech



BBC Radio 4 Today interview: reflecting on the last 60 years

Lord Owen was interviewed by John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 11 October 2017, reflecting on the last 60 years.  Listen to the full length unedited interview here: BBC Radio 4 Today interview

Lord Owen argues the need for a Brexit Default Position.

Speaking at The Times Forum Meeting at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Sunday 8 October 2017.


It is now clear that the German and French governments have vetoed moving into discussions on the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence. We will lose at least two months of negotiating time. We are witnessing the classic Brussels rolling out of delaying tactics compounded by the UK Government’s dithering. It is all creating political uncertainty.

If there is not greater clarity by the turn of the year, it will really start to hurt: investment projects can’t be held on hold indefinitely, and there will probably be the first material cancellations in the first quarter if this continues.

Since it looks as if the EU will keep stringing things out, my own strong preference now is for a UK unilateral declaration (as quickly as possible) of how the UK intends to operate in the absence of the EU being prepared to discuss the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence. This should be our Default Position for leaving the EU under Article 20 at the end of March 2019 involving a transition period of two years prior to operating under WTO in 2021.

Firstly, the UK should stay in the EEA for two years and seek to make arrangements with Norway and others under the Non-EU governance pillar arrangements to do that. We should operate that agreement ‘as is’. The UK would not give the one year’s notice of our intention to leave the EEA agreement in March 2018 (ie. in six months’ time.)

If the EU challenge our position as a Non-EU contracting party to the EEAA, we should go to international dispute resolution using the Vienna Convention. (If the EU wish to open themselves up to legal action by any business that is adversely affected by their lack of cooperation with an established procedure for international agreement that is an EU responsibility).

The UK should start as a Non-EU contracting party to introduce, after the fullest negotiations, our own UK management measures in our own UK fishing waters and our own agricultural policies again after fullest negotiation with all 31 other Contracting parties to the EEA Agreement. Consultations will start to introduce EEAA-compliant limitations on free movement of workers in 2019.

The UK should continue to operate the common external tariff for two years and run things exactly as now. Eg. French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Bulgarian wine, etc. can come in tariff free and on the current arrangements provided only that they reciprocate. If they don’t, the UK should follow the time honoured practice of tit-for-tat, up to WTO levels.

Within the two year period, the UK should start to negotiate international FTAs while giving a priority to the EU. If there is no readiness on behalf of the EU to negotiate a FTA seriously, other FTAs might become operative before March 2021.

The UK can collect customs duties as now, but not (as now) pay the great bulk of that revenue to the EU. Rather we will take a slice from it to cover the Financial Mechanism payments entailed by the EEAA, which are paid by the UK direct to the beneficiaries (Poland, the Baltics, Romania, etc, etc.) The beneficiaries will appreciate that since they need it. We would pay the rest of the customs duties into the general budget for the two year period, provided other EEA states reciprocate on the other aspects. If they don’t, we should keep that revenue.

The UK should settle our pension obligations soon and separately. It shouldn’t be much when assets are netted off. This is what the EU have always said they wanted.

This Default Position which would not involve the ECJ but the EFTA Court is a reasonable and fair way to proceed. Is it too much to hope that the House of Commons on a cross party basis could come together on such a basis if the EU stand-off continues after October?




The Financial Mechanism section of the Agreement provides for the only mandatory payments of non-EU states. It is basically a compulsory regional policy. The EFTA website describes it as follows.

First, the EEA EFTA States contribute towards reducing economic and social disparities in the EEA through the EEA Grants. Currently the beneficiary states include Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. In addition to the EEA Grants, Norway has funded a parallel scheme since 2004 – the Norway Grants. The funding period covering 2014-2021 has a total financial envelope of approximately EUR 400 million per year. These contributions are not managed by the EU, but by the EFTA Financial Mechanism Office in collaboration with the beneficiary countries.

Over 40% of the Norwegian payment (the Norway Grants) is voluntary, instituted when oil prices were high, so we could avoid that. A better estimate of the mandatory amount for Norway is probably around EUR 225 million per annum. Since our GDP is a little over seven times higher, the implied figure for the UK might be around £1.6 billion per year.


Lord Owen reacts to the Prime Minister’s speech In Florence, 22 September 2017.

“I believe the whole country can and should now rally to support this negotiating position.

“We are in the midst of the most difficult international negotiation we have ever faced. Disunity weakens our negotiating hand.

“Brexit is the people’s choice. If politicians play games with this issue they imperil the country.

“Brexit does not belong to the Conservative Party. We need cross-party input into refining and buttressing the all important detail of this new UK position.

“The European Commission will hopefully now start the second stage, building up towards agreement by October 2018.”


“Brexit: we cannot buck the will of the people… but the Government must take more account of its own MPs and… those favourable to Brexit who want some accommodation on democratic choices.”

Lord Owen interviewed by CNN on “the Road to Brexit”