Snoozing in the Backseat

Britain has been irrelevant in Ukraine's crisis. If it leaves the EU, it will only become more insignificant.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague turned up in Kiev on March 3, stating that the situation in Ukraine is the biggest European crisis of the 21st century. Historians can argue about whether Britain realized that too late, or better late than never. Because by March 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin already seemed to have achieved the optimal level of Western humiliation without over-extending his position: He had done enough to make his point about Russian influence in the Ukraine by sending troops into Crimea, but avoided any genuinely tough Western response, which a full-on invasion of eastern Ukraine might have triggered.

Britain played no significant role in the earlier revolutionary phase of Ukraine’s crisis. On Feb. 19, the pivotal day on which several Ukrainian protesters were shot dead in Kiev, the ceasefire was brokered by the Polish, German, and French foreign ministers who flew into the city.

But the story here is bigger than Britain’s absence at the key moment in this European crisis. British relegation to the backseat of European foreign policy in Kiev is the result of two decades of progressively more powerful euro-skepticism in the United Kingdom, which is now influential enough to risk British isolation and international irrelevance — a self-inflicted wound.

It’s non-role in Kiev stands in stark contrast to the U.K.’s central position in European foreign policy when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and in backing the subsequent eastward expansion of the European Union. Thus Ukraine’s crisis tells us as much about Britain’s overall relationship with Europe as it does about Russia’s: The Euromaidan revolutionaries wrote in blood on Kiev’s streets that they wanted to face West, and that Europe was something that mattered. Back in little England, the dominance of the introspective euro-skeptic understanding of "European" issues ensured that Britain was in its own world when the real world came knocking.

In February, the central European issue for the U.K. was not Ukraine. It was whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel would back British Prime Minister David Cameron’s demand that the EU’s 28 member states, representing 500 million citizens, radically reform its laws to suit the U.K., or else face the threat of an in-or-out referendum on the country’s EU membership in 2017. For non-fantasists, the chancellor’s refusal to endorse Cameron’s demand during her visit to London on Feb. 27 was a statement of the obvious.The euro-skeptics tell us that Britain would be more powerful alone, that the EU is holding the country back. But they don’t get that globalization means small states need to scale up to have international influence: The picture of the U.K. alone, punching above its weight outside of the EU, is not inaccurate, just partial — because it fails to illustrate how when Britain throws punches outside its weight class, it often misses and get punched back in the face.

Consider, for example, September 2013, when Britain took the most aggressive diplomatic position of any Western country on air strikes in Syria, then backed out. After Putin’s spokesman jumped on that to call Britain "just a small island… no one pays any attention to them," Cameron wheeled out a story about Britain’s extensive soft power, which simply missed the point. Just because you support Manchester United, or provide in your contract for arbitration in London under English law, it does not mean you will swim alongside the British government when it wades into the turbulent waters of international realpolitik (this is my full view on U.K. soft-power).

The U.K. should get back in the front seat of the EU to wield an amplified international influence. The alternative is international isolation, a view represented most vocally by the increasingly popular U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which should really call itself the U.K. Irrelevance Party.

At the very least, if Britain’s euro-skeptics want to get attention by threatening to jump out from the back seat, perhaps they should not distract the drivers at the very moment they may have more pressing issues on the road ahead — like, for example, the sovereign fate of the Ukraine.

British euro-skeptics come in two kinds. The majority, like Cameron, want reform of the EU, especially to cut red tape and more clearly demark areas of national and supra-national policy, particularly in relation to social issues and immigration, welfare "benefits tourism," and protectionist agricultural policy. Their views are sensible, and I agree with many of their aims, but their strategy is wrong: to get what they want, the U.K. needs to move to leadership at the center of the EU, not threaten ineffectually from the sidelines.

Then we have the hard-liners who genuinely want the U.K. to leave the EU. The zealots among them turn every domestic political discourse into tedious sermons on the minutiae of EU directives (which are inevitably referred to as Diktats). They need to move on from 1945: Britain has not been a global power for decades, due to the collapse of the British Empire, the massive debt burden of two world wars, and a primary focus on the welfare over the warfare state; it is not because of the country’s membership of the EU since 1973.

Hard-line euro-skepticism itself includes substantially different positions that are ultimately contradictory, exposing the underlying conceptual fragility of the movement. On the one hand, we have those within UKIP, for example, whose alternative to the EU is little England. This is an isolationist position dismissive of British internationalism. On the other hand, we have those hardliners, especially in Cameron’s own Conservative Party, who want Britain to leave the EU in order to become a deregulated, independent, free-wheeling global power. The fundamental problem this latter group has is in explaining how a literally independent Britain would deal with globalization without ceding any state sovereignty.

That Britain on its own has the negotiating power to get the same terms from trade agreements as the EU can, by making big-ticket deals with China or the United States, is simply ridiculous. And what would happen to U.K. trade with the EU single market — by far the biggest destination for U.K. goods — if Britain left the union?  Britain would need to comply with EU regulations anyway, but from outside Brussels, it would have no say over their content.

The tradition of electing hard-line euro-skeptics to be members of the European Parliament (MEPs) already diminishes British sway over EU regulations, given they have no interest in making the legislative process in Brussels work. For example, Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader and a sitting MEP, did not attend a single meeting of the fisheries committee between February 2010 and December 2012; this rather undermines the credibility of the promises he made to those who elected him to reform EU fishing policy, but does suggest that he was right to refer to his own campaign manifesto’s pledges as "drivel".

Farage rants against the bureaucrats in Brussels for being gray, boring, and unaccountable; a sort of Satan in clerk’s clothing. He misses the point that this is what Brussels is supposed to be: an administrative center, the chief function of which is to produce legislation that harmonizes standards in a vast range of sectors across the biggest single market in the world, and to coordinate national efforts on complex issues like climate change. He is right to question accountability, but he has no moral claim to do so himself, since the EU’s accountability system is based on MEPs actually turning up to work.

To take part in globalization today, Britain either needs to be part of a wider bloc, or to operate as a global hub. Being in a bloc means that, to influence regional and global issues according to its interests, the U.K., like any other state, gives away some sovereignty by binding itself to the obligations flowing from the multilateral treaties that underpin a group, be it  the EU, U.N., NATO, or the World Trade Organization. Conversely, through the global hub option, huge deregulation allows some small states to trade a national for an amorphous international identity, along the lines of Singapore or Hong Kong; but this is a radical sovereign arrangement that most British people would not want. If the hard-line euro-skeptics want the U.K. to become a larger version of west London, where most British citizens were priced out of the housing market long ago by international buyers, so be it. But in so far as many euro-skeptics seem to want both a little England and a Dubai-on-Thames, their views are contradictory.

There has already been extensive commentary on how Cameron’s appeal to Scotland on Feb. 7 not to vote to leave the U.K. in its September independence referendum mirrors the language of those in the EU who want the U.K. to stay, and so implicitly contradicts Cameron’s own public position vis-à-vis Europe: "It’s about what we, the constituent parts of the U.K., can achieve together. The power of collaboration. Together we’re stronger at getting out there and selling our products to the world."

To be sure, Cameron’s personal position on the EU isn’t precisely clear. He has given hints that he does not himself want Britain to leave the EU, especially to Scottish audiences, within which many see potential exclusion from the EU as a major factor in favor of staying in the U.K.: "Last year we were the top destination for foreign direct investment in Europe," Cameron said on Feb. 7. "That is a stamp of approval on our stability — and I would not want to jeopardize that."

Yet Cameron’s misguided strategy to reform the EU has now trapped him in a position in which he cannot publicly back those who oppose the U.K. leaving the EU because his leverage depends on the credibility of that threat. He adopted the strategy in the first place to placate (unsuccessfully) hard-line euro-skeptics in his own party, who are worried about UKIP taking their votes. (UKIP is currently polling close or slightly ahead of the Conservative Party for the May 2014 EU elections, but behind the Labour Party).

And why is the UKIP getting popular support? The answer, to my mind, is again globalization. Figures released in late February showed that the U.K.’s coalition government will miss its immigration targets, in terms of people let in to the country, possibly by hundreds rather than tens of thousands. Farage responded by stating that immigration is the "biggest issue in British politics." Some of those who vote for UKIP may agree with him on xenophobic grounds; Farage regaled his party conference last week by telling them how uncomfortable he was "sitting in a train full of foreigners" on the way down. But the reality is that many of UKIP’s constituency are not xenophobes and only see immigration as Britain’s most central political issue insofar as it is a pressing economic reality for those competing for jobs with hard-working EU immigrants.

The problem with UKIP’s argument is that leaving the EU would not stop the forces of globalization, as the U.K. would have no option but to open up to the world, given that it has a service-based economy, or sink under the weight of its gigantic public debt, which, contrary to public perception, has doubled under the current coalition government. The argument that the U.K. could trade with the "New Commonwealth" and Asia, and maintain hard restrictions on the mobility of those places’ citizens into the U.K., is implausible. Look at Switzerland (not in the EU), which UKIP often uses as a model: Because of its necessarily international-facing economy, foreigners there make up 23 percent of the population.

Beyond immigration, the U.K. will experience the effect of free markets in a globalized world whether that is mediated through the EU or not. And what those forces of globalization are creating, especially through competition, the rise of mobile international elites, and the accumulation of capital into increasingly narrow tranches of national populations, are increasingly unequal societies. Thus the Financial Times recently described a new middle-class division in the U.K. between the "über-middle" of lawyers, bankers, etc. and "cling-ons" of salaried professionals like engineers and academics, who struggle to maintain the living standards their parents experienced. The old working class is not even mentioned.

The fact that UKIP is taking votes from across the political spectrum is a testament to how wanting to be in, or out, of globalization on a given policy issue in many instances is a more important axis of political affiliation in the U.K. today than the old categories of right and left.

British politicians have not been sufficiently candid with the public about the nature of contemporary globalization. The U.K. cannot opt out of it, so the country is likely to see a significant increase in social inequality in the decades to come, whether it belongs to the EU or not. That means UKIP massively oversells the reality of what its voters would get if Britain disassociated itself from Brussels.

The key forces that will affect the social cohesion of the U.K. in decades to come are external, and the country cannot influence them as a lone power. On the foreign policy front, to have influence, the U.K. needs to be in Europe’s front seat, not dozing in the back when the next Kiev happens.

Britain must not shut its eyes to globalization and sleepwalk into insignificance. It should stay in the EU — with its imperfections — and lead from the front.

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