What’s the big idea, Britain?


Philosophers identify two means of dealing with uncertainty: theoretische Freiheit and gelebte Freiheit. If ‘theoretical freedom’ means keeping one’s options open, ‘lived freedom’ means making commitments even at the cost of one’s room for manoeuvre.

Events a fortnight ago in Oxford show how these philosophical differences can split the EU. On 21st September, the Polish foreign minister delivered a speech calling for the UK to make a positive choice and commit to the EU instead of endlessly hedging her bets.

He picked up on three arguments. First, the British position on Europe mistakes room for manoeuvre for true freedom. By maintaining an arm’s-length distance to the EU, London is actually allowing decisions to be made for it elsewhere. By committing to the EU, by contrast, the UK could realise her priorities, becoming more powerful and thus freer in real terms.

Second, the UK’s pursuit of autonomy has moved from the pragmatic to the ideological. Put simply, the British are no longer sufficiently open-minded to keep their options open as regards European integration. Instead, they take ad-hoc decisions and dogmatically pursue those options that come without strings attached.

Third, Britain has failed to acknowledge the degree to which she has already bound herself to the EU. Thanks to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, the British are used to the idea that past decisions can be overturned at the drop of a hat. The EU works differently – votes in favour of further integration mean renouncing this kind of freedom.

So how did the British react to the Pole’s call for active commitment? The response can be summed up as a polite “no thanks, if it’s all the same to you”. Most Britons, it seems, would prefer to bet on the dissolution of the eurozone than to try actively to avert it.

Some of the responses, however, revealed precisely the little-England mentality which the speech had diagnosed. One rejoinder forgave Sikorski his ‘gross interference’ in the UK’s internal affairs, citing Britain’s famous tolerance, before embarking on an invective which put the lie to that particular national myth.

Was the minister, these commentators wondered, really trying to mobilise the British with a hard-hitting critique or was he in fact publicly blackballing the UK in an abject show of loyalty to other European governments – Germany perhaps?

And who was he to talk of commitment anyway? This was a man with an international background, indeed an English education, and a set of beliefs that have shifted markedly since an early flirtation with Euro-scepticism – clearly a slippery cosmopolitan binding his country before hotfooting it to some international sinecure.

But for the most part, the audience seems to have heard Sikorski’s rounded English vowels and congratulated themselves on the sustained power of Britishness. Here was a foreigner delivering a polemic in the spirit of an Oxbridge debating society – an affirmation of Britain’s perpetual rightness. How perfectly charming.

And this is the point: If British values are being picked up by Europeans like Sikorski, it is precisely because of the cosmopolitan effect of the EU and the fact that, in the context of close cooperation, the UK offers an appealing counterpoint to Germanness. Britishness has persisted because of, not despite, the EU. The British cannot have it both ways.

This chimes with what British analysts like Alan Milward have argued, namely that the European Union has been a means of sustaining the European nation-state in the modern world. EU membership may have entailed painful changes, but the process of adaptation would have been rather worse without.

If there is frustration in Poland, therefore, it is because London seems almost wilfully unaware of the EU’s usefulness in this regard. The UK tells herself that a world without the EU would be that cosy old place where she sails the seas and trades with the natives. In reality, if the EU is suffering, it is because the world has become yet more unforgiving towards flabby European states like Britain.

This may of course mean that the Union in its current form really is moribund. But that in turn only infers that European states need to come up with some other means of survival. In the past, British politicians and analysts were always at the forefront of thinking on the new global and regional architecture. The UK must commit to something.