Winning without fighting (not)

The disintegration of the Eurozone is beginning to look more likely. And Britain looks wrong-footed.

Back in September, George Osborne warned the Eurozone’s leaders that they had 6 weeks to fix things, and encouraged them to integrate further, arguing that fiscal and economic union had a “remorseless logic” for the Euro 17. Since then the British Government has – at least seen from the outside – wringed its hands.

To be fair, events have been moving quickly, and no one really knows what to do. And the Eurozone is – fortunately – not our problem to solve, though unfortunately its problems impact on us day-by-day. But we might have played a better hand. Instead, we have have hollered about an impending disaster, we have urged the Euro 17 to work harder, we have allowed a narrative to take hold that David Cameron might provide coherence and mission to the Non-Euro 10 – then under-delivered, and we have consistently failed to show vision for either the EU or Britain.

On Monday evening (14 November), David Cameron saw in the Eurozone’s crisis an opportunity to call for fundamental reform, suggesting that the EU should in future operate “with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc”. A good line, but one which surely contradicts at least the spirit of the Chancellor’s vision. Cameron went on to talk about a Europe of ‘nations’, ‘diversity’, and a union that was ‘outward looking’ and ‘competitive’. These are well chosen phrases, but also well-worn ones. Cameron has been using them since 2005, and he hasn’t yet managed to join them up into a compelling plan for Britain in Europe – something which achieves a balance between national interest, and our obligations to our neighbours and partners.

If you don’t have a strategy, unexpected events will buffet and embarrass you. In spite of Tony Blair’s best efforts, Britain remains the only European power outside the Eurozone. Come this crisis, we might have looked smart but sympathetic, strategically ahead of the rest of the EU (thanks to our geography and history, not the wisdom of our political elites) and ready to roll-up our sleeves and help. We had the chance to earn leadership points, we had the chance to help the EU rebuild in our image, ring-fence the City from destructive regulation, and strengthen our alliance with Germany (this should be so much stronger).

Instead, we find ourselves looking isolated, weak, self-interested, short-sighted and confused. What are we for? What does Britain want from Europe? In Germany politicians frustrated with the agonising dilemma which confronts them let off steam not in the direction of Rome of Athens but at London.

A strategy which identified what we wanted from our medium term relationship with the EU (thus enabling us to achieve other global objectives), would have given us a game-plan for exactly this sort of eventuality, and clever stuff to trade, in return for concessions. I would (crudely) trade our military capabilities for greater economic and legal freedoms. We are no longer a sovereign military power, and Europe needs to work harder to project its common interests globally, and balance the US in NATO. Britain could marshal and lead Europe’s outreach programme, thus making herself indispensable and more secure. We would look generous and strategic and valuable as we cut our ties to Europe’s economic and social regulations (I’d also re-assert the independence of our legal system from the ECHR).

Too late. We have squandered what moral authority we had, and thus made the job of re-negotiation much harder and more damaging. Along with everyone else, we find ourselves scrabbling for a response to the crisis. The irony is that I suspect David Cameron will come to see a UK referendum on our relationship with the EU (also inevitable) as a blessing. Let no one pretend his job in Brussels isn’t very difficult; fighting lonely battles is sapping and it is difficult to win through. His best play in Brussels is to hold his hands up and nod to the mandate of a fed-up British electorate.

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