The British Are the Architects of Their Own Misfortune in Europe; It Is Not Jean-Claude Juncker’s Fault
by Andrew Alexander The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
One of the innumerable things that differentiate a politician from a normal person is an obsession with influence.
In the name of influence we have invaded Korea, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq since the last world war. In the name of influence, Britain has sold almost every national asset on which it can lay its hands and prostituted its capital to world’s stolen money. In the name of influence our cabinet wails and gnashes its teeth, furious at the thought of not being able to contribute weapons to Syrian madmen who would use them to murder women, children and occasionally government soldiers.
It is a cardinal rule of influence that it is a common asset and an essential one. The people of Britain, whose happiness is largely determined by the fortunes of their favourite football team or talent show singer, are supposed to walk taller for the thought of the reverence accorded to their politicians at international summits. It is accrued by these politicians at immense cost on behalf of all of us – a sort of NHS for the soul. Another cardinal rule of influence is that it can never be used. Britain hordes influence like spinsters horde vouchers. To attempt to use our influence in order to, well, influence world affairs to our advantage would, you see, pose a tremendous threat to…our influence, which in turn depends on us being an ‘honest broker’ in world affairs. It is very difficult for the layman to understand – one of those features of world affairs that defy any logic but the logic of vanity.
Britain is a member of the European Union primarily because membership is a wonderful thing for influence. It is hard to make the case that membership is a hard nosed economic choice when 88% of Britain’s massive trade deficit is from trade with the EU. Combined with the £8.6bn net membership fee, redistributed amongst nations for which the British have no historic responsibility and are, themselves, frequently scarcely European, this fact alone removes the economic rationale for membership. Besides which, what price political independence? Can you put the figure in pounds and pence? Britain has sacrificed control over the movement of people, goods and capital within its borders – is that an exchange worth making for a tiny financial reward? The Scottish, offered a ‘British dividend’ of £1,400 with sober instruction about what this means in fried Mars-bar terms are about to answer that question, and the patronising manner in which it has been put to them makes one hope they turn around and say no. There is no economic, political or defence based rationale for Britain in the European Union. We are there in order to honour the enthusiasm with which our politicians devote themselves to striding past mounted banks of cameras at summits, the wonderful speeches of approval and commendation they deliver in one another’s honour. Nevertheless, elections intrude. The European Parliament results predicted in this column duly came to pass – Europe’s politicians, met with a hostile, Eurosceptic electorate, have spent the time since the ballot promising that they are “listening”, “learning” and “understand[ing] that people are angry”. David Cameron has been no exception. For domestic political reasons he now needs to show he is “getting tough” on Europe. For reasons of personal conviction, he cannot do anything which would be of any practical use in detaching Britain from Europe. These are the origins of the current song and dance around Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mr Juncker richly deserves the scrutiny he is now receiving. The former Prime Minister of Luxembourg and current front-runner for the job of President of the European Commission can boast of a career of contempt for the democratic process that is impressive, even by EU standards. Until last year the head of the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers, his persistent fib telling over Greece won him the accolade “the master of lies” from the Suddeutsche Zeitung thanks to his maxim that, in his own words, “when it becomes serious, you have to lie”. Both the Conservatives and Labour now oppose Mr Juncker’s candidacy for the President of the European Commission because they believe that he will make the kind of gentle, tinkering reform he is interested in more difficult. Mr Juncker has the backing of Angela Merkel who appears to believe it an impertinence that any country other than Germany should attempt to wield a veto on this key position. With the France of Francois Hollande confused and impotent, and Britain’s northern supporters lacking clout in Brussels, it is likely Frau Merkel will get her way. But is this man really the largest impediment to a successful British-led reorganisation of Europe? I would argue he is not. The problems lie with the British themselves and reflect two common themes of their historic engagement with Europe. Until Britain is able to change the outlook of its governing classes, it matters very little who their equivalent is in Brussels. Let us take those themes one by one.
A little more talk and a lot less action
The first common theme is ineptitude in European diplomacy. I mean this comparison in its lightest possible way – there is all the difference in the world between a peaceful European federation of nations and the murderous evil of Nazi Germany – but anyone who has ever read AJP Taylor’s magisterial The Origins of the Second World War will be struck by the similarities between our times. British diplomatic engagement with Hitler was led by a small coterie of immensely privileged Englishmen who fundamentally misunderstood what motivated the man sitting at the opposite end of the negotiating table. They presumed that someone of his station in life would share their liberal, peaceful, conciliatory world view, would be reasonable when asked to sacrifice a little national interest for the welfare of the continent. Britain at this moment finds itself governed by astonishingly similar people. They are still unable to grasp that people will act against their own ostensible interests from what they perceive as love of country, a love that of necessity seeks its expression in hardship and friction rather than the ease and comfort of compromise. For that reason the Tories, even now, still do not give the faintest impression of understanding why it is that their voters would rather vote for UKIP. In any case, the British negotiating position with Nazi Germany was fundamentally a weak one for two reasons. Firstly, the British concentrated almost entirely on what they lacked, magnifying their opponent’s strength and projecting fearful losses for themselves. They were also weak at home. For those reasons they arrived at the negotiating table desperate for some scrap to wave in front of the domestic public, not with any serious intention of driving a hard bargain. Secondly, they announced in advance that they would not do the one thing which would have conceivably encouraged their adversary into a concession – in the case of the German annexations of Austria and then Czechoslovakia, this meant declare war. This combination meant that Hitler paid no heed of British warnings, disregarded every settlement he could be bothered to negotiate, and was genuinely stunned when the country went to war apparently on the back of a wave of public anger at appeasement.
What is happening now with Britain in Europe is eerily similar. The Prime Minister is convinced of an entirely implausible scenario of economic disaster if Britain leaves Europe. He is not intending to open negotiations on our future from any great sense of personal conviction but rather because the public demand it of him. Moreover, by announcing that he could conceive of no circumstances whatsoever under which he could imagine recommending a British exit, he has reduced the entire process from a negotiation to an exercise in begging. He had only one bit of leverage – the threat of an exit that would have proven highly embarrassing for the EU, and here he is announcing that even if the EU makes no concessions at all he will campaign enthusiastically for British membership. It may be that the wiles of international diplomacy elude me, but this does not seem a promising negotiating strategy now any more than it did in the 1930s.
In Europe, not of Europe
The second great failing of British European policy over time is that it lacks any proper conception of what Britain would like Europe to look like. In this sense, British policy is conservative in the true sense – we fought land wars in 1914 and 1939 to preserve the existing borders of Europe without, apparently, giving much thought as to what those borders should look like if British interests were to be at their most advanced. The war aim in both was to restore the status-quo, and so it is with Britain in the EU. The sole aim of British European policy under successive governments has been to slow the advance of the European Union and keep it in stasis. Only at moments when the British are threatened with the loss of their ability to slow Europe do they take a forwards step (for instance as with the Maastricht Treaty). At every summit, British leaders arrive with a plan to thwart radicalism, but not with sufficient imagination to seek to rebuild a Europe favourable to Britain.
I have complained in the past that there is a reckless absence of strategy in the way the British approach the world. No renegotiation of British EU membership can hope to succeed unless you have a proper vision of what you would like your engagement to look like, the rationale behind that and a strategy to achieve it. The British approach at present is to take a wish list along based on complaints from the tabloid newspapers at home and seek to pick up as many concessions as they can get away with. Piecemeal concessions across very different policy areas will not help radically re-shape Europe, something that is now surely necessary if Britain is going to retain any basis in popular support for membership. Moreover, cherry-picking concessions will not allow Britain to build up a coalition of partners able to change the EU. Frau Merkel made it quite clear that Britain’s strategy was completely unbalanced when she visited The Palace of Westminster earlier this year and announced that “supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment.” Presenting incoherent wishes en-bloc was always likely to meet with this response – again, failure to sell a European vision and presentation of whatever vision there may be as a set of pick n’ mix demands led to diplomatic failure.
So the problem of the British in Europe remains unsolved and largely insoluble. There is very little chance that the British governing class will suddenly master even the rudiments of diplomacy, there is even less chance that they will start building anything resembling a negotiating strategy on the foundations of their panicked attempt at populist reform. History will be decided, in this area at least, by the random crawl of events, neither the British elite, nor the Brussels elite have a compelling alternative to the status-quo, and so the ball is back in the courts of the discontented around the continent and particularly in Britain. Perhaps if there is a vote on Europe, the people will disregard the wise council of their leaders and vote to leave. Perhaps a fresh crisis in the Eurozone will bring matters to a head elsewhere and the British will be borne along by the rip tide of fate. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. What about probably? Well, if history is anything to go by, quite probably they will all carry on regardless.