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Page last updated at 02:00 GMT, Friday, 23 April 2010 03:00 UK

Debate shows UK uncertainty about place in world

David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The prime ministerial debate on foreign affairs illustrated the lack of consensus in Britain about its place in the world.

It is still unable to decide where the thrust of its 21st Century foreign policy should lie.

Does its future security rest primarily in its relationship with the United States or should it increasingly be closer to its partners in a European Union that is inviting economic, security and defence co-operation?

The party leaders could not agree.

The Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown has, in office, tried to position himself to be friends with both the US and the EU and he did not move from that during the debate.

US or EU?

"Let's not go back to the days when we were fighting with the rest of Europe in the past," he said, accusing his rivals of taking sides.

HMS Vigilant - one of the Royal Navy's Trident submarines
The leaders argued over the future of Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent

He called the Conservative leader David Cameron "anti-European" and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg "anti-American."

Mr Cameron's view of the EU is sceptical. The kind of EU he wants is a loose association of nation states, with very little in the way of common foreign or defence policy, unless to his liking.

"I think we should be in Europe because we're a trading nation, we're part of Europe," he said.

"We want to co-operate and work with partners in Europe to get things done.

"But ... we have let too many powers go from Westminster to Brussels."

Trident disagreement

Nick Clegg said that the US and Britain had an "immensely special relationship", but this should not be a "one-way street". Britain should not be at anyone's "beck and call".

Of the EU, he said: "You change clubs of which you are a member by getting stuck in, not standing on the sidelines and complaining about things."

Differences emerged over the recent British decision to replace the Trident nuclear missile system with an upgraded version. Labour and the Conservatives would go ahead with this.

The Liberal Democrats want to scrap Trident and maybe have a cruise missile-based system.

Afghan consensus

There was agreement over Afghanistan, with a subsidiary argument over whether troops had been properly equipped.

The time has not come - and may not if results are achieved in the war - for the parties to break ranks.

British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan
Soldiers have complained the Afghan mission has been under funded

Hanging over this debate was the economic plight that Britain is in.

The weakness this has revealed has cast its shadow and might itself lead to a degradation of its international position and limit its options.

But in this debate there was not much concentration on that.

Nor was there any discussion of which parties might co-operate in the event that one does not get an overall majority.

Britain has traditionally not liked coalitions and the subject is perhaps too sensitive for such a debate.

No nitty-gritty

What did not come over was the nitty-gritty of policy commitments that often tell you what the style of a new government will be.

Take European defence as an example.

We know that the Conservatives are hostile to the concept, to which member states are formally committed in the Lisbon Treaty, of a "progressive framing of a common union defence policy".

Several structures have been set up to this end.

There is the European Defence Agency (EDA), which seeks to co-ordinate procurement and capabilities; the 15 EU battle-groups, designed to help in peacekeeping and to which the UK has designated forces; and a policy called "permanent structured co-operation", which seeks to hardwire defence co-operation within an EU context.

A Labour government would carry on with its toe-in-the-water approach - co-operate on EU defence but don't integrate too much outside Nato.

A Conservative government would review British policy towards the EDA and the other ventures.

It would be minded instead to go for bilateral co-operation, with the French as the first-choice partner.

The Liberal Democrats are Europe-inclined and would be much keener on exploring a Europe-oriented future.

Old habits

A sense that something needs to change emerged from a survey of about 2,000 security and defence experts carried out by the Royal United Services Institute in London.

It found that 88% of respondents agreed that "the UK needs a radical reassessment of the position it wants, and is able to play in the world".

However, another question, about whether "the UK's interests are best served by maintaining a special relationship with the United States, ahead of all other strategic partnerships" found agreement with a majority of 58% - highlighting something of a contradiction in that a "radical reassessment" would suggest a loosening of ties with the US.

Old habits die hard, it seems.

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