Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Alone on the Island

Is David Cameron's self-imposed exile from Europe savvy or suicide?

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

"Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off" is one of the most famous headlines in British newspaper history. That it is apocryphal matters less than the general truth it conveys: Britain has always stood apart from continental Europe. This island nation may be part of the wider European brotherhood, but it is still not a full member of the club. And as the euro crisis continues to cripple the continent, the distance across the English Channel only seems to be growing.

It was ever thus. Winston Churchill stressed the importance of European unity after World War II, but when the European Union was founded through the Treaty of Rome in 1957, Britain was left on the outside. Ever since, it has never been wholly enthusiastic about the European project, so anyone surprised that British Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed proposals in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 9, for a new EU treaty, notionally supposed to address the present fiscal crisis, should have known better. On Dec. 12, back at home, Cameron told the House of Commons that he did not believe there is "a binary choice for Britain" between being a "full, committed, and influential member of the EU" and staying "out of arrangements where they do not protect our interests."

Nevertheless, the prime minister's veto was the clearest indication yet that Britain is at best a semidetached member of the European Union. Britain, Cameron stressed, desires "the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc." Yet can any network be flexible enough to comprise a bloc of 26 countries and a single refusenik? What's more, the future of Britain's relationship with the European Union has been called into question. Suddenly, the idea that it might actually one day leave the union entirely seems more credible.

"Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off" is one of the most famous headlines in British newspaper history. That it is apocryphal matters less than the general truth it conveys: Britain has always stood apart from continental Europe. This island nation may be part of the wider European brotherhood, but it is still not a full member of the club. And as the euro crisis continues to cripple the continent, the distance across the English Channel only seems to be growing.

It was ever thus. Winston Churchill stressed the importance of European unity after World War II, but when the European Union was founded through the Treaty of Rome in 1957, Britain was left on the outside. Ever since, it has never been wholly enthusiastic about the European project, so anyone surprised that British Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed proposals in Brussels on Friday, Dec. 9, for a new EU treaty, notionally supposed to address the present fiscal crisis, should have known better. On Dec. 12, back at home, Cameron told the House of Commons that he did not believe there is "a binary choice for Britain" between being a "full, committed, and influential member of the EU" and staying "out of arrangements where they do not protect our interests."

Nevertheless, the prime minister’s veto was the clearest indication yet that Britain is at best a semidetached member of the European Union. Britain, Cameron stressed, desires "the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc." Yet can any network be flexible enough to comprise a bloc of 26 countries and a single refusenik? What’s more, the future of Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been called into question. Suddenly, the idea that it might actually one day leave the union entirely seems more credible.

In truth, Cameron’s room for negotiation was limited. Accepting a new EU-wide treaty would have required a British referendum that he would almost certainly have lost. Moreover, it is not clear the prime minister could have retained even the support of a majority of his own party, which if lost could have fatally undermined his authority. In October, more than 80 Tory MPs voted against the government on a proposal to hold a referendum on British EU membership. That was a purely symbolic motion because the government had no plans to introduce such a bill. If so many Conservatives rebelled over a purely notional vote, how many more might do so if the question were asked for real?

Whatever the reason, European leaders saw Cameron’s decision as part of a long history of British stalling designed to preserve its special prerogative. On Monday, Cameron complained about "discriminatory" and hostile European attitudes to the City of London, the heart of Britain’s banking sector. The French think Britain’s financial center is part of the European problem; the British, of course, thus consider it the single most important part of their economy and believe it must be protected from French-led interference.

For those on the continent, Cameron’s determination to do all he could to protect his country’s vital financial-services industry was a typical piece of British duplicity. Britain, this view has it, always demands all the benefits of EU membership while also always declining to accept the costs of membership. For instance, Britain would like to save the euro but won’t contribute anything to actually saving it. One French diplomat reportedly complained that Britain had behaved "like a man who wants to go to a wife-swapping party without taking his own wife." 

Cameron has problems within his own coalition government too. Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who as the most Europhile leader of Britain’s most Europhile party, told the BBC that Cameron’s tactics were "bad for Britain." Although Clegg — who, tellingly, was not present in the House of Commons to hear Cameron’s statement on Monday — blamed French intransigence, he also fretted that "I think now there is a danger that the U.K. will be isolated and marginalized within the European Union. I don’t think that’s good for jobs, in the City or elsewhere. I don’t think it’s good for growth or for families up and down the country."

Worse still, Clegg argued that if Britain drifts further apart from the rest of Europe, it will soon be "considered to be irrelevant by Washington and will be considered a pygmy in the world."

In other words, this is a debate that’s not confined to economics or the dry detail of bureaucratic regulations issued in Brussels. On the contrary, it cuts to Britain’s sense of itself, its identity, and its place in the world. Not everyone agrees with Clegg. Some Euroskeptics see a future for Britain as an offshore beacon of free trade, open to the world and very much contrasted with a protectionist Europe. In this view, Britain should aspire to be like Norway or Switzerland — outside the European Union but inside the European Free Trade Area. Whether the rest of Europe would tolerate a low-tax, lightly regulated Britain in such a role is a different matter.

Despite the acclaim with which his veto has been met by Britain’s right-wing press, it is unfortunately not obvious that Cameron has actually vetoed anything at all. The other 26 EU countries, subject to parliamentary approval, will now proceed with new intergovernmental arrangements that must surely have an impact on Britain. Labour leader Ed Miliband, while refusing to say whether he would have agreed to a new pan-European treaty himself, nevertheless lambasted this "diplomatic disaster." A poll published by the Times of London newspaper reported that 57 percent of voters approved of Cameron’s use of the veto and just 14 percent opposed it — but also that 56 percent also agreed that British influence within the European Union would be diminished.

As Cameron’s decision reverberates across European politics, the greatest victor will be France and President Nicolas Sarkozy. If Britain is some kind of Anglo-Saxon cuckoo in the European nest, it stands to reason that its marginalization benefits France, whose views on any number of European issues, including the operation of the internal single market, generally differ from Britain’s.

In that respect, a diminished Britain also weakens Germany’s strategic position because, in general, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s views on market liberalization run closer to London’s than those of Paris. France, however, now has a smaller "inner euro," free of British influence. The idea of a more closely integrated eurozone has been a long-standing French objective, and it is now within reach.

These negotiations have also made it apparent that democratic accountability is no longer — if it ever was — a matter of vital concern to the European project. The new requirement that national governments submit their budgets to be approved by Brussels removes any last pretense that the European Union is even mildly worried by the gaping democratic deficit at its heart.

Nor can anyone suppose that these new rules, designed to prevent countries from budget deficits, will be applied equally. The Stability and Growth Pact underpinning euro membership notionally prevented large budget deficits but was abandoned when it proved inconvenient to France and Germany. It would now take heroic dollops of optimism to suppose that Europe’s main economic engines will be held to exactly the same standards as, say, Ireland and Portugal.

The recent Brussels summit has changed the continent, as well as the way it is governed, in ways much more profound than might have been anticipated just a few days ago. These political machinations, however, should not distract from the fact that the negotiations have done nothing to solve the economic crisis looming over the continent. The sense persists that, in American parlance, a Super Bowl–sized crisis is being met with Pop Warner league measures. The fiscal crisis afflicting the eurozone is, at best, tangential to these political concerns. Measures to address that have been kicked down the road. Again.

And Europe’s future, like Britain’s relationship to the continent, remains shrouded by heavy fog.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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