The drama and politicking which accompanied the UK’s apparent isolation at the European Summit which has just taken place, disguises the political reality of The United Kingdoms relationship with Europe.
While the news media correctly focuses on the immediate political implications of the summit and the impact on the European Union at large, the Euro Zone within it and the domestic political implications in the UK and the largely Euro-skeptic, Conservative Party, it is worth considering the long view in terms of Britain’s relationship with the continent.
The news that the United Kingdom is the only EU Member not to sign up to the Taxation and Budget Pact and that it has effectively used it’s Vito to prevent this treaty being formalized in changes to Existing European treaty legislation is, in reality, merely the latest manifestation of a complex relationship which dates back centuries.
Much of the internal political discourse within the United Kingdom centre’s around whether Britain should remain “inside” the European Union or “go it alone,” and it is probable that this will form the subtext for the inevitable debates which will surround the fall out from this treaty up to and beyond the next general Election.
This is missing the essential point of British membership, however. For Britain did not join in order to become European, but in order to ensure that she obtained access to the European market while enjoying the direct leverage afforded by a Veto.
Thus, in much the same way as France saw (and sees) the EU as a method of effectively binding Germany to France and protecting her essential integrity, so Britain viewed and views membership as a means of preventing Europe from once again coming to threaten her traditional freedom to act independently.
It is worth noting, here, that much of the political animosity stirred up as a result of the UK Vetoing the French attempt to have existing EU treaty legislation altered to formalize the deal, is driven by domestic political considerations as much as by long-held commitment to the direction of a Federal Europe.
France has elections next year while The British Conservative Party is likely to make significant hay with the imagery of a lone David Cameron, fighting Britain’s corner against the overwhelming electoral might of the combined 26 EU Members.
Yet the “In or Out” argument which will form the sub-text of British domestic debate on this issue leading up to the next election, is in fact, little more than a microcosm of a debate Britain has always held with Europe. Indeed, the reality of Britain’s geographic semi-proximity and the limited population afforded by her Island status, ensures that Britain is condemned to hold this debate for the simple reason that she is unable, either to fully dominate or to fully escape the gravitational pull of European affairs.
There are those in Britain who would like to leave the EU and who argue that Britain could easily retain trade links with the EU in much the same way as EFTA countries used to do. Yet in recent political history, this argument has been countered principally because by enjoying the power of Veto, Britain could effectively prevent the European Union from taking steps which Britain did not wish it to take.
In other words, Britain’s membership of the EU, while on the face of it, seems out of character with here traditional aloofness from Continental affairs, is, in reality, merely a tool for maintaining and managing an arm’s-length diplomatic control.
Britain has no vested interest in a United and powerful Europe for she lacks the population, geographic centrality and military might to control such an animal. Traditionally therefore, Britain (and England, before that), sought to divide and conquer in Europe, maintaining unilateral alliances in order to prevent individual powers becoming too powerful.
While the EEC remained a Western European Club, of 12 or so nations this was an easily controlled beast, particularly when the threat of a Communist east presented a unifying existential threat common to all member states. The collapse of Communism and expansion of the EU eastward was encouraged by Britain as it perceived that this expansion would further dilute the power of a Franco-German alliance to dominate Europe.
In reality Britain now finds that this has been a miscalculation. The overwhelming trade imbalance between Germany and the rest of the European members ensures that as Europe grapples with how to maintain it’s single currency and growing political homogenization, the need for German leadership has seen countries with traditional fear of German dominance (such as Poland) seek greater cooperation: not greater fiscal independence.
Further, the expansion of the EU has diluted the effect of a British Veto to the point where, it is no longer of any value to Britain in preventing Europe from behaving in a manner deemed damaging to British interests.
The French might rail against British duplicity in vetoing their proposal to amend existing European treaties, but in reality, the other 26 European nations have simply bypassed Britain by signing a Supra-national treaty to implement the agreement.
David Cameron, will, I am sure, receive a substantial electoral bounce for his ‘Maastricht Moment’ but in reality, Britain has far larger issues to consider as matters have not played out as Britain would have hoped.
If Britain’s Veto no longer carries the political weight it once had, Britain, by definition no longer has any meaningful safeguards over the future direction of the continent. The Veto system has effectively been replaced by the German Banking sector as it is German banks which will determine the criteria for convergence required to guarantee the Euro a stable future, and German Banks operate under German financial regulators.
Britain has ultimately failed to influence the increasing convergence around a German dominated economic model and will increasingly face divergence between her own economy and that of Europe. By the same token, however, the level of integration between Britain and Europe is such that a European sneeze quickly becomes a British cold.
In the past, Britain has tended only to directly intervene in European affairs in order to prevent it coalescing around a single dominant force, be that German military might, Communism, Napoleon or the Euro. Her method for this has varied throughout the centuries with military intervention traditionally seen as very much a last resort given Britain’s traditional inability to raise a sizable land army.
Where possible, therefore, Britain has sought allies who will take on the bulk of the fighting for them. Britain’s problem now, is that in the diplomatic battles ahead, she has almost no allies at all.