Why Britain is not isolated in Europe

Posted on December 13, 2011


Since the European Summit on Friday, when David Cameron blocked an EU-wide treaty, many in the media have talked a lot of balls about the United Kingdom and “isolation”. Those who have criticised the Prime Minister, (who, funnily enough, have mostly been Europhiles), have bemoaned our lack of “influence” in Europe. If one follows the logic of their criticisms, it seems the only way the British can gain “influence” on the continent is if we gave up our own interests and helped the French and Germans pursue theirs.

Both Gideon Rachman and Julian Lindley-French have written good critiques of Britain’s “isolation”; I have tried to fuse these pieces with my other reading and have come up with the following:

I believe the United Kingdom is in a strong diplomatic position, not a weak one. Since Friday, British Europhiles, who are considerably more hysterical than some pundits claim Eurosceptics to be, have been “talking Britain down”. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrats, called his own country a “pygmy” just the other day. The goal of such abuse is to scare us into submission by making us think a country as irrelevant as ours should be grateful the European Union is good to us at all! (It is a trick Europhiles seem to have picked up from wife-beaters…).

The reality is quite different. We are the third largest economy in Europe, as well as the fifth or sixth largest in the world. Hamish McRae of The Independent explains here why Europe needs us as much as we need them in terms of trade. The United Kingdom is also a key member of NATO and the only European country that the French could plausibly cooperate with on defence. The realities of power politics dictate that Great Britain can’t be isolated from Europe: we are too big, too rich, and too powerful for them to exclude us.

Our decision not to participate in the ‘Brussels Botch’ has accentuated the ‘realities’ behind our diplomacy in two ways. Julian points out that ‘Britain has preserved the strategic room of manouevre worthy of one of Europe’s Big Three and which Germany and France last week tried to deny it. When Berlin emerges from its funk it will realise it has to deal with Britain.’ There is also no guarantee that the agreement will be ratified. Gideon Rachman writes that as economies worsen, voters in Europe are likely to revolt against the measures their leaders have signed them up to. ‘As ratification problems mount, against a background of economic stagnation or worse, last week’s clear picture of an isolated Britain and a Europe pushing towards unity will become much more blurred.’ There is still everything to play for.

Europe’s problems will be decided by the Big Three, not the Middling Twenty-Four. The dominant media narrative since Friday has been that Europe is divided between the United Kingdom on one side and the rest of the European Union on the other. Actually, the divide is between us and the other two most important countries in Europe: France and Germany. Like always, Europe’s problems will be decided by the Big Three in tandem or two of the three against the third. Sarkozy succeeded at last week’s summit because he won German support, but such support is not guaranteed forever. Angela Merkel now faces the prospect of ‘a structural relationship with France which simply sucks Germany ever deeper into a protectionist, statist, indebted Europe which sooner or later will be overrun by the very forces of globalisation enshrined in the City of London.’ This provides an opportunity for David Cameron to realign the Big Three. ‘A more sober Berlin will realise that a deal with Britain is much more likely to promote the kind of economic reforms and disciplines Germany knows full well Europe needs to compete in this world’, Julian argues.

By breaking the ‘veto taboo’, the United Kingdom can play the ‘crazy country’ strategy. There is some confusion about whether David Cameron used the veto last Friday: to veto something is to stop it, which the Prime Minister obviously did not do. One former Labour minister described Mr. Cameron’s decision as a “phantom veto” yesterday. Phantom or not it has broken a taboo in our relations with Europe, and the appearance of having vetoed an important treaty should give credence to Mr. Cameron’s threats of vetoing other things. This furnishes us with an opportunity to play the ‘crazy country’ strategy should the French and Germans be unwilling to make a deal. “Unless you give us x, y, and z, we will block this, this, and this.” It is a strategy which works for Israel and Pakistan vis-à-vis the United States and it worked for Bismarck in the 1850s as Prussian ambassador to the German Confederation. This is not my preferred strategy: it is a deterrent to further Franco-German intransigence and a last resort should it not deter Paris and Berlin from “isolating” us.

Whether David Cameron can be so Bismarckian is seriously in doubt, unfortunately…