Sunday, 23 December 2007

Isolationist UK

Yesterday I wrote about the new core areas of European integration, with new member states steadily advancing into the growing Schengen area, the expanding Eurozone and the shared values of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as most of them being dual EU and NATO members.

The more striking contrasts between old and new members are gradually disappearing, and the core groups are growing.

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The coin has a flip side. The old member states staying aloof from these areas of deeper integration are gradually marginalising themselves.

Rickety rules for unanimous decision making give ample scope for obstructionist tactics, but blocking decisions and hailing aborted deals as success stories is hardly a constructive line to take. It is hard to believe that isolationist policies are going to win friends and help to influence people within the European Union in the long run.

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One example of the political price self-imposed marginalisation may entail, came when ValĂ©ry Giscard d’Estaing answered a question about the new President of the European Council on his blog. VGE emphasised that the person should be selected with care, and he went on to say that he or she should come from a country which belongs to the Schengen area and the Eurozone and adheres to the Charter.

Any British candidate (including Tony Blair) was eliminated 3 to 0.

Of course, VGE is not part of the European Council now, but I imagine that his line of reasoning strikes a note with many European leaders.

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No wonder that the new Danish government wants to offer its people a chance to abolish the peculiar opt-outs of the country.

Not surprisingly the new Polish government wants to repair the damages caused by its predecessor.

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The United Kingdom has shown few such signs. These last months Great Britain seems to have drifted farther out into the Atlantic, without getting closer to the United States. The UK used the negative referendums on the Constitution for Europe for domestic purposes, having little to do with the reasons for failure in France and the Netherlands.

The UK launched new demands to generally weaken the treaty it had already signed in 2004 and to introduce non negotiable specific “red lines”. Once again, the European partners showed flexibility.

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown has not visited the European institutions specifically, something Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy did instantly after being installed.

The present European Commission is fairly pro-business, pro-globalisation and pro-enlargement. As such it could be an important ally for Britain, but nurturing constructive alliances does not seem to top the British agenda.

Brown has said little about the European Union, except that it should have a more global view and stop reforming its institutions. By signing the Treaty of Lisbon but missing the ceremony, Brown managed to harvest scorn from both anti-EU and pro-EU quarters. This snub to Britain’s oldest ally can have done little to enhance Brown’s prestige among European leaders or further British interests.

There are few indications that Brown’s grumpiness has placated the rabid domestic EU detractors, egged on by an imaginative tabloid press. (Calling this crowd eurosceptic is a euphemism.)

Failing to communicate clearly, why Britain’s interests lie within Europe, is a long term legacy of successive British governments, but Gordon Brown has let the situation worsen.

The Tory opposition has done its utmost to make Gordon Brown look like a real statesman, painting itself into a corner on European affairs, should it win a majority with an obligation to pursue real British interests.


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Perhaps we have to admit that Schengen, the euro and shared values are hopeless causes in Britain for domestic reasons, in spite of the negative consequences of being an outsider. There is one area, crucial for the future, where the United Kingdom could make a signal contribution, if it wanted to: defence.

The UK is a leading member of NATO and it has the best military capabilities among the EU countries. Here it is more difficult to see domestic reasons for the lack of progress. It rather looks like the umbilical cord tying Britain to the USA is the main reason for the failure to advance decisively to build a common European defence.

In the long run there seem to be few options to a common European defence (built on democratic accountability) in conjunction with the transatlantic ties offered by the intergovernmental NATO alliance. In these questions President Sarkozy seems to be somewhat closer to the truth.

As it is, Britain is decidedly an EU outsider, a leader of steadily shrinking groups of like-minded self-marginalising powers.

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The regional parliament in Scotland has demanded a British referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. This is only an opinion, since ratification is to be decided by the UK Parliament. But it shows that the pressure is growing.

At the same time, Labour is sinking like a stone in opinion polls. This might lead to Brown’s choice of parliamentary ratification being defeated, by the parliament most keen to be seen as the hallmark of parliamentary sovereignty. Hardly anyone believes that a referendum on an EU Treaty (regardless of content) can be won in Britain.

If the ratification process fails in Britain, it is hard to believe that EU leaders, fed up with 35 years of British obstructionism, would embark on a new round of negotiations to bring the UK on board.

A more probable scenario would be that the rest of the European Union, or at least the more willing member states, would re-establish the EU and upgrade its capacity at the same time.

The end result might come as a blessing for secessionist opinion, but it is hard to see how British long term interests would be served by reverting to isolationist policies.

For Great Britain insularity, isolation and exclusion may soon be more than mere mindsets, unless Scotland and Wales decide on a change of Union, leaving England behind.


Ralf Grahn