Friday 20 November 2009

But what does Europe want to do in the world?

So much attention to the question of who gets which job in the European Union; but why so little as to what European governments might want to try to achieve together and why on the world stage?

Even before Tony Blair's candidacy was jilted for a safe Benelux pair of hands in Herman Van Rompuy, there was always a good case for regarding the high representative for foreign affairs, Cathy Ashton ('she who must not be called Europe's Foreign Minister'), as a more substantive role for than that of presiding over the EU Council, and seeking to nudge 27 democratically elected heads of EU governments towards consensus.

Yet the challenge for a coherent EU external policy is a similar one, with European powers grappling with the strategic question of where they can - individually or collectively - hope to influence major global issues in a new age where the growing importance of the US-China relationship sees much discussion, albeit slightly premature, of a new G2 age of Great Power politics.

The Eurosceptic fear that the Lisbon machinery creates the institutions of an EU superstate rather misses the point.

Whether the new Henry Kissingers will call Ashton, van Rompuy, Barroso - or rather Merkel, Brown or Sarkozy and their foreign ministers - will depend on how far EU governments wish to act collectively, even when it appears in their interest to do so.

Indeed, Javier Solana's budget for EU foreign policy was less than that spent by the European Commission on cleaners in Brussels, according to Mark Leonard, director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, speaking today at a Chatham House conference where the 20th anniversary of 1989 provided a moment to try to assess the challenges of the next two decades. The budget will now increase, but not very dramatically, and the evolution of a new EU external action service, and its relationship with and relative status compared to national diplomatic services, will take some time to develop.

A coherent EU strategy on the world stage is not just a question of institutional arrangements, shared interests or even political will, but also of the national imagery which are central to the psychology of international politics.

There is a must-read discussion of these questions in the ECFR's excellent power audit of EU-US relations.

Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney's punchy new pamphlet sets out a powerful argument that the Obama administration has a strategic vision of how to prepare for a "post-American world", yet the European Union does not.

Since "a sense of relief at the change of President is not the same as an agenda", the advice is that the EU would do well to emulate the declared pragmatism of an Obama administration which is pro-European but in the sense that it would like to judge its partners by results, not the warm glow of shared history.

The myths by which we make our national foreign policies explain a good deal of the reluctance to do this. Nor is this a distinctively British problem. The authors set out how at least half of the EU believe their own 'special relationships' give them a comparative advantage which makes bilateral relations with the US - not just British loyalty but France's revolutionary sisterhood of Republicanism; Irish ancestry, Lithuanian diasporas, the personal and ideological affinities of the new Czech and Polish democracies, and many more besides.

This leads to European national policies dominated by "lighting candles to the Transatlantic relationship" but with a needy fetishising of attention - who will win the race to the White House? - further exacerbated by "a love of process over substance and a European compulsion to crowd everybody into the room". The authors report Barack Obama's incredulity at listening to 27 different heads of government speak in turn at the Prague summit, while his officials wonder how the G20 managed to expand 24 seats at the table, including 8 Europeans.

The authors argue cogently that the inability to think strategically is captured most starkly by the vacuum in serious European thinking about national and European interests in Afghanistan, because of uncertainty about what it is that the Americans might decide to do next:

"The problem is that they can not begin to accept the new US strategy as their own until they know what it is, and in the interim are left rudderless"


But it is not at all clear whether these strategic debates will take place at all in Britain, outside the Foreign Office.

There is a real 1990s sense of deja vu all over as the question of "Europe" again becomes a domestic political argument about whether Britain has ever quite decided whether we are in, out - or now wish to be somewhere in between.

Certainly, that is the only live discussion going on on the right, as is very well captured in Fraser Nelson's fascinating recent Spectator dispatch from the No Turning Back group dinner.

Fittingly enough, the No Turning Backers seem very clear, seventeen years on, that it is still only half-time in the long battle of Maastricht.

And the tactics set out for the next five years of guerilla warfare are interesting too. Revealingly, diplomacy with EU partners is seen as largely pointless way to pursue British interests.

There is much the Eurosceptics believe can be done without recourse to the largely ineffective diplomatic route. A practical Euroscepticism can be deployed not as a strategy for summits, but as a day-to-day policy for dealing with Brussels. It is time, in other words, to go rogue.

I couldn't help feeling that the core Eurosceptics resemble, in their tenacity and stamina, something of a parliamentary Taliban, in their willingness to head for the hills and take the very long view of a battle to overturn a thirty year interruption to their vision of national sovereignty unsullied by such foreign entanglements as EU membership demands.

Of course, there is an honest case for getting out of the European Union, made by UKIP and by Tories like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan - though many Eurosceptics do more quietly fear that putting that question again could lead to a defeat which could set their cause back for thirty years. That is part of why there is little sign that even the most Europhobic think any day of reckoning could be less than five years away, though this is a question that may well need to be settled for another generation.

At least "in or out" is a question which makes sense. But the alternative "in between" position of renegotiated membership seems no better defined than when it provided a populist slogan without obvious content for William Hague's unpopular populist bandwagon back as Tory party leader in 2001.

But there may be more than one way to end "a thousand years of history". The irony may be that, if this is the only European debate we have in the next few years, that Britain might just, without really noticing it at all, be quietly retiring from any significant aspiration to influence the course of international affairs.

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