Foreign ministers of the UK and Canada yesterday announced that their two nations have signed a memorandum of understanding on Enhancing Mutual Support at Missions Abroad

The announcement has generated a small torrent of speculation and alarm from the press in both countries and further afield – perhaps because of the lack of detail in the official communiques. There's even been some tabloid anti-EU speculation that for the UK, the deal is designed to counter the influence of the EU's massive European External Action Service.

The barrage of criticism has already prompted some rapid backpedalling by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who said the arrangements were 'merely administrative' and that each nation will maintain an independent foreign policy.

So, what's in the deal? In a press release, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office described the MoU in terms which are both broad and tantalisingly undefined:

[It is about] closer co-operation between our foreign ministries, enabling us to increase our cooperation and maximise our reach and impact. [It is about] how two foreign ministries, with common goals, can work together on shared values. It is about speed, flexibility, practicality and saving the taxpayer money in both countries.  But it is also about being able to operate effectively in a networked world. 

In the same announcement, some of the specifics start to emerge: 'the agreement will see Canada and the United Kingdom make the most of their respective diplomatic resources by exploring further co-location, as well as collaboration on consular services.' In other words, not earth-shatteringly new. 

As some of the foreign press articles point out, there are precedents for this type of arrangement: Australia and Canada already have a formal MoU under which both nations provide consular services on each other's behalf in 21 countries, where one has a diplomatic presence and the other has none. This works well, by and large, because Canada has a strong presence in the Americas, for example, as Australia does in the Pacific, and both countries have a similar approach to the standard of consular service they provide. Under less formal arrangements, Australia provides some services to New Zealand and the UK and vice versa.

Across the Western world, ministries of foreign affairs are experiencing budget constraints or cutbacks. Several, including the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are already members of a cooperative group on consular matters: the so-called Consular Colloque. Sharing of facilities, staff and other resources makes sense in some situations, particularly in providing routine services to citizens of like-minded English-speaking Western nations. Unsurprisingly, then, the announcement has spawned speculation on whether Australia and New Zealand, similarly stretched in their diplomatic resources, will join the party, expanding on their existing arrangements with each other and with Canada, and linking with the UK as well.

What's harder to divine is how the deal benefits the UK. It already has one of the largest networks across the globe, with 270 offices in 170 of the 193 UN nations — the third largest in the OECD, according to our latest report, compared with Canada's 140-odd (across 106 countries) and Australia's thinly-spread 95 missions (77 countries). So its global footprint is comprehensive, and one wonders what Canada, with its much smaller network, brings to the table.

In a speech just two months ago, however, Foreign Secretary William Hague proclaimed the Foreign Office's 'conscious decision to expand our diplomatic network even at a time of budgetary constraint...By 2015 we will have deployed 300 extra staff in more than 20 countries. We will have opened up to eight new consulates or trade offices'. This suggests one possible motive, that of enhancing consular services, notwithstanding a stated corporate goal of trimming that service back.

The fine print will be fascinating.

Photo by Flickr user avail.