Foreign Office increases overseas network

The expansion of Britain’s diplomatic network has been welcomed by foreign diplomats in London and in overseas capitals.

Britain will open five new embassies – in El Salvador, Kyrgyzstan and South Sudan, as well as in Madagascar and Somalia when local situations stabilise – and send more diplomats to China, India and Latin America to raise its influence with the rising powers of the 21st century, Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament.

Re-engaging Latin America

The decision has been welcomed in El Salvador where three generations of ambassadors to London, Ambassadors Vilanova, Villalta and Romero, have waged a campaign to have the British Embassy in San Salvador reopened since its closure in 2003.

For Latin American diplomats in London, the move is yet more tangible evidence of the Coalition Government’s promised re-engagement with Latin America.

Commenting on the reopening, the Foreign Secretary said: “For the first time in decades our diplomacy is being extended not reduced. We will re-open the Embassy in El Salvador as part of a major diplomatic advance in Latin America after years of retreat.”

Britain will send in diplomatic reinforcements to Brazil, where it will open a new consulate general in Recife. It will also boost staff numbers in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Panama and Peru.

Expansion in Asia and Africa

In the emerging superpowers of Asia, Britain will add 50 more staff in China and 30 in India, focusing on the “fastest growing cities and regions” of both these countries.

There will also be a “substantial” expansion in diplomatic presence in strategic partners Turkey and Indonesia. Other Asian missions to see a rise in staff numbers include Myanmar, Thailand, South and North Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

In Africa, more staff will be sent to Nigeria, Angola and Botswana. The Foreign Secretary is also considering upgrading the mission in Côte d’Ivoire to a full embassy.

While Mr Hague pledged to keep all of Britain’s 140 embassies and high commissions open, he added: “This expansion does come at a price.”

Efficiency savings

Britain will fund the expansion by making efficiency savings of £100m elsewhere, notably by reducing staff in subordinate posts in Europe, which will be maintained largely as trade or consular posts. Some posts, however, face closure.

“Only three of the world’s 30 richest cities are in Europe in terms of total GDP, and our embassies there still cost more than elsewhere,” Mr Hague said.

“Other savings will also be found as we reduce over time our diplomatic footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is very large relative to the rest of the network,” he added.

The FCO will be relocating to a single site in London, saving around £34m on estates and security costs.

Further savings will come from reducing bureaucratic costs by doing administrative work through regional centres and by employing locally recruited staff rather than posting junior FCO staff overseas.

While broadly welcoming the expansion of the overseas network, the Foreign Affairs Committee warned against a move to use more locally employed staff above junior Foreign Office staff, saying overseas postings provided valuable training.

They also pointed to security risks in sensitive posts and the fact that local staff, who do not have immunity, are vulnerable to intimidation in countries if relations with the host country deteriorate.