A story for Europe

In the 2009 edition of his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington famously turned his attention from the ‘Third World’ to Europe. His expanded thesis was widely derided at the time, receiving hostile reviews in the TLS, FAZ and IHT. Today, however, it appears oddly prescient: the European Union is showing just the cleavages that Huntington suggested.

Huntington was the one who, back in 1993, predicted that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War would create an ideological vacuum to be filled by ethno-religious beliefs, largely directed against the West. Following the apparent vindication of the 9/11 attacks, Huntington expanded his theory: in 2009, he suggested that the decline of the US and the breakdown of the ‘western bloc’ would give way to similar trends in Europe.

Huntington has been unnaturally quiet in recent years, but he surprised European viewers on Friday with an untrailed appearance on Euronews. The US academic had been attending the launch-event in Warsaw of a “New Narrative for Europe”, a Brussels initiative to update the story of European integration. “I’d just like to tell my friends in Europe that this may be the beginning of the end for the EU,” Huntington sighed. “I recognise the signs”.

The EU, he said, was echoing many other supranational regimes in their dying days: a European Cultural Committee had set up a listening exercise with Citizens to create a legitimate new Ideology for EU integration. Huntington’s verdict: “Oh dear, oh dear.” This small man with large gig-lamp glasses and white suit, a visible figure up in the gods, had become perceptibly gloomier as the day wore on.

Huntington said he had watched the Commission President address the assembled artists and intellectuals on the subject of the unfolding drama of Genuine Economic and Monetary Union and the EU’s cultural competencies under Article 167 of the Lisbon Treaty, while Commission Vice President Viviane Reding had spent an hour in ‘listening mode’ sympathetically telling the audience about the benefits of EU integration. 

The veteran Cold Warrior, a former adviser to Carter, said he had been drawn back to Warsaw to check on the health of the EU’s ideological basis. Saddened by its shaky condition, he named the forces likely to fill the vacuum. Speaking in his soft Noo Yawk accent, he suggested the sovereign debt crisis was splitting the bloc into three ethno-religious groups, all of which were prominently represented at the congress.

Europe’s ‘Catholics’, he said, were represented by the old guard who had been wheeled out to talk about their experience of Nazism, Francoism and Communism. They demanded solidarity and financial transfers between Europeans, framing these as atonement for past sins. “These elderly gentlemen,” said the sprightly 86-year-old, “are the reason that Europe’s new cleavages will be along transnational not national lines.”

However, they were under fire from the ‘Calvinists’, a group much in the news since the start of the crisis. Represented notably by French speakers at the congress, the Calvinists painted a bleak future for Europe in the face of international competition. Although they claim salvation is largely out of the EU’s hands, noted Huntington, they still demand that its citizens make painful choices and stick to the straight and narrow, just in case.

Huntington also identified a few lone ‘Anglicans’, not least in the form of a British member of the Cultural Committee. Clearly ill at ease with the dogma on offer, she had underlined the need to live in the here and now, albeit according to the principles of self-moderation and mutual respect. “You guys ever seen that limey sitcom, the Vicar of Dibley?” Huntington shouted. “It was like listening to the vicar of Dibley preaching PM Cameron’s Europe policy!”

In Huntington’s opinion, if you want to transform society, you have to present a strong vision of the future. “The Communists imagined a utopian future, the Fascists projected a utopian past, but you Europeans did something else – you looked back to a dystopian past and left the future undefined. The shared desire to leave that past behind was the secret of your success. But you’ve lost faith in a shared future now. That’s why the religious nuts are out.” 

Asked if he took anything positive from the event, Huntington replied “Oh sure. Hey, many of the speakers today have been completely off beat. Any continent that can produce the exciting array of hair and dentistry I’ve seen here must be doing something right. Narrative? You’ve got enough material for a whole telenovela.” And with that, he was gone, later tweeting “A New Narrative for Europe? #ucdntmakeitup”.

 

twitter: @roderickparkes

 

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If Germany is the EU’s China, what does that make the UK?

The German question is back, again. EU governments are trying to figure out how Berlin’s current prominence will affect the future of European integration. If they’re struggling though, it’s because the EU is an organisation without precedent – there’s no way to predict how the current renationalization of power will play out.

Or at least that’s the wisdom. In fact, the EU is not quite as unique as it appears. Like many other international organisations, it provides a microcosm of bigger international patterns. Brussels officials have long whiled away the hours by spotting parallels between European and global affairs.

Today, those parallels are clear. The states that established global rules are too weak to uphold them, and catch-up countries complain that their inclusion has been superficial only. Faced with cross-border problems, many of them are resorting to unilateralism, fancy-sounding ‘minilateralism’ or ineffective intergovernmental summitry. The same is true of the EU.

In this general power vacuum, all eyes are on the last few remaining powers to come up with a solution – at the global level, the US, China and the EU; in the European Union, Germany, France and the UK. And, given the neat symmetry of these two trios, it is hard not to ask: which of the global G3 mirrors Germany?

It would be comforting to say the US. Germany and the US rank as the last two hegemons at the European and global levels respectively and as the only states ready to underwrite common rules and institutions. But don’t be fooled. If the US has a doppelganger in the EU it is not Germany. Rather worryingly, it is France.

Both France and the US have a strong belief in the universality of their values but also in their own exceptionalism. Both countries heavily supported international rules when these reflected their values, but have struggled with demands to make them more inclusive. And both have been ready to resort to unilateral action, not least to make up for their declining economic clout.

Germany clearly does not have that proprietorial sense of the international system. If it has to have a global twin then, it is probably China. 20 years ago, both were only half-in today’s international order (quite literally in the case of a divided Germany). But today their stealthy accrual of economic weight places them unwittingly at the centre of it.

This presents both with a dilemma: as pre-eminent powers they are acutely aware of the limits of unilateralism and individual state power. But, although they thus recognise their dependence on international rules, they would have most to sacrifice in terms of their new sovereignty and prominence in order to boost the system.

Both are now using their own history to abdicate responsibility. Germans are often the first to point out that nobody likes it when they do try to show leadership in the EU; China cites past tensions with its neighbours to avoid taking enlightened action. Their increasingly esoteric foreign policy philosophies effectively boil down to mercantilism or inaction.

So, two down and one to go. If Germany is China’s doppelganger and France is the US’s, a simple process of elimination can mean only one thing: the UK is the EU’s. In a delicious twist of irony, the EU is making the same contribution to global affairs that the UK is currently making to EU affairs.

The United Kingdom, a supranational project that once looked like the shape-of-things-to-come, is beginning to break apart. Abandoning its lofty internationalism, Britain is paralysed by centrifugal pressures from within. It has fallen prey to the general breakdown of international rules and institutions. Ditto, the EU.

So where does all this leave us? With the UK/EU seemingly intent on self-marginalisation, the focus is on France/US reconciling itself with Germany/China. But the chances of success are small. Germany, for instance, seems to look at the French model of active foreign policy as entirely bankrupted, deeming itself confirmed in its own relative passivity.

So don’t write off the European Union and the United Kingdom too soon. After all, both came into existence by uniting their disparate member states by innovative means. Can they now use their gifts of constitutional and institutional reinvention to save not only themselves but the regional and global systems?

 

This essay was first published, with a not entirely straight face, by IP Journal https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/germany-eus-china 

Twitter: @RoderickParkes

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It’s 2018 and the British have voted yes – is that the end of the affair?

It’s Spring 2018. Six months earlier, British voters chose to stay in the EU, by 55% to 45%. A Grand Coalition was elected, promising a unity government to “lead in Europe” on issues of flexibility and sovereignty, economic liberalisation and crime and terrorism. And yet now, Britain is suing for withdrawal. What went wrong?

The trigger was a series of treaty referendums that came in the wake of the Yes-vote. Eurozone governments had been scrupulously avoiding treaty change for years in order to avoid a full-on renegotiation of British membership, preferring instead to reach a series of agreements amongst themselves and without the UK.

Now, with the UK membership question behind them, they could get these conventions into EU law. And a British government worried about its exclusion from eurozone affairs was keen to see this happen. British voters, however, had been hoping finally to put EU issues behind them, and they were fed up.

Moreover, this came on the tail of an unfortunate double-whammy – the TTIP and the UNSC. During the long run-up to the referendum vote, pro-Europeans had painted an apocalyptic vision of exit, claiming the UK would not only be cut out of a potential transatlantic trade deal – the TTIP – but would struggle to justify retaining its seat in the UN Security Council.

And yet now, just months after voters chose to remain in the EU, the ‘mother of all trade agreements’ was finally signed, and not only had it been thoroughly diluted by the French, it was being expanded to accommodate non-member states Turkey and Switzerland. So much for exclusivity.

As for the Security Council, unable to escape the fact that having a seat of its own would mean more military responsibility, Berlin had given up calls for German representation. Chancellor McAllister was instead demanding that the British and French merge their seats and create a single EU representation, closely coordinated with Berlin.

Then, of course, there had been the marked slow down in British-style reforms to the EU after 2017. With the UK on the sidelines for five years, other member states had come out of the woodwork. Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic had successfully pushed for a more liberal, open and flexible approach to EU affairs.

The UK’s ‘re-engagement’ set back their efforts. Demanding exceptional treatment for itself, London undermined their calls for all member states to receive more sympathetic treatment from Brussels. And concerned about other members ganging up on it, the UK reversed their efforts to inject flexibility into decision-making, demanding hard legal procedures instead.

London was also struggling to lead on crime and terrorism. Reforms such as Poland’s effort to reduce its use of the European Arrest Warrant and Romania’s human trafficking policies – all introduced under heavy British pressure –  unravelled in 2014 when the UK used its home affairs opt-out. The resulting problems meant the UK never regained momentum.

But the final straw had come when the UK’s new EU membership settlement began to backfire. A British-inspired arrangement to allow national parliaments jointly to veto European proposals ended up diverting MPs from domestic scrutiny procedures and pulled them into policing the esoteric concept of ‘subsidiarity’. It was all too much for British voters who revolted.

The point? Well, for all the sound and fury, British voters look set to stay in the EU if, as now seems inevitable, they are given an in/out referendum in 2017. But a Yes-vote in a referendum is meaningless unless we are honest about the choices facing us. And that is not currently the case.

Those politicians and talking heads who want the UK to stay in the bloc make their case either by scaring voters with an apocalyptic vision of what withdrawal would entail or tempt them with a very rosy picture of our capacity to lead the European Union to reform.

The truth is that exit would not be wholly disastrous, so the choice to remain should be precisely that – a choice. Moreover, the EU is well on the way to reforming itself and does not need or want ‘British leadership’. We shouldn’t stay because we glumly believe only we can save the bloc and that it is better to be inside a failing organisation than on its doorstep. Again, it should be a free choice.

That said, certain things in life are not a matter of choice – the existence of migration, say, or international rules. Even the Americans are unwittingly bound by EU data-protection laws, anti-trust laws, health laws, scientific research and environmental laws. These things may constrain us, but they also create stability and freedoms from which we benefit.

What really is up for choice, then, is our attitude in dealing with these simple facts of modern life. Or put another way, the referendum is as much about us as it is about the EU. Yet critical self-reflection is something that has barely featured in the debate. And the risk thereby is not just that we miss the real choices facing us. Through our negative behaviour, we will considerably narrow them too.

 

This essay first appeared on the website of British Influence in Europe under the title “It’s Spring 2018 – did anything change?”: bit.ly/18aaMud @BritInfluence

 

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Ukip’s tragedy? It wants us to be more German

 

“Britain discovers Germany as a model”, chirruped Der Spiegel recently. And it’s true – Britain has been suffering an almost biblical outbreak of German-envy. 

The left-leaning New Statesman kicked things off at the beginning of May with a “Why can’t we be more like Germany?” Special. Next came Martin Kettle in the Guardian newspaper lamenting that “Britons obsess about immigration, Germans focus on education”, his point only slightly undermined by the publication of a joint British-German letter detailing our shared concerns about, well, immigration.

And then sure enough, after a day or two more of gloom, the inevitable fight-back. A serious-looking man from the BBC called Evans ordered us to pull ourselves together. “Hey you British moaners”, he told the Guardian “Germans actually want to be more like us”. That’s the spirit, Stephen, very plucky.

The source of the envy? Germany’s balanced economy and solid manufacturing base, its youth-centred football, its measured dialogue between trade unions and management, and its smooth integration into the EU – in other words, this was an expression of yearning for a Britain that might have been.

Margaret Thatcher is the immediate trigger for this nostalgia. Her death in April spurred a wave of longing from both the Left and Right for the post-War institutions she banished – institutions which Germany still seems to possess and which, as almost every commentator was keen to point out, the British had actually engineered.

British-German relations

Ever since the financial crisis hit in 2007, Britons have viewed Germany as a kind of alternative UK. Solid, provincial and unbothered by fashion, the Bundesrepublik represents a simpler life. When Britain sent those Stars-of-Botox Engelbert and Bonnie off to Eurovision, it was with the excuse that they are big in Germany. 

Sadly, this is just about the limit of British-German cooperation in Europe. Although Britons view Germany as a kind of mirror image and corrective, they have hardly developed the relationship beyond what is necessary and expedient. 

London remains unconvinced that cooperation in the EU is a means of preserving Britain’s institutions. Instead, Britons prefer to go it alone, arguing that their practices and institutions are incompatible with European norms. And again and again, they find themselves responding to broader international pressures by making drastic Thatcherite reforms that strip those institutions down.

If the British thus avoid partnership with Germany for fear of diluting their institutions, the Germans have the opposite motive. They have traditionally avoided close cooperation with Britain for fear of amplifying theirs. Germany has chosen France as its partner precisely because Paris and Berlin think in such different ways.

Germans repeat the mantra that the EU needs at its heart a bilateral tandem that represents both the south and the north of the bloc. Indeed, they argue that the Franco-German relationship is at its most fruitful when there are parties of different political stripes in power in Paris and Berlin. British-German relations therefore remain an after-thought.

The tragedy

This frustrates many other member states. The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and much of Central Europe positively welcome la menace anglo-saxonne. They have pounced on the recent signs of its resurgence, such as the cosy family meetings between the Camerons and Merkels and the German support for the proposed EU-US trade deal.

They also believe the Franco-German tandem is on the ropes. The Parti Socialiste has been grandstanding about Merkel’s austerity policy; Paris has been resorting to risky manoeuvres in Mali and elsewhere so as to gain some political weight; and what the French see as constructive engagement, the Germans see as Gallic obstruction.

Yet, despite this weakening of the Franco-German tandem, the Germans seem less likely than ever to forge a serious alliance with the British. And who can blame them? It’s not just that the UK has been heavily hit by the financial crisis. With the UK Independence Party making mischief, there’s little reason to engage.

But therein lies the irony. UKIP romped home in the UK’s local elections of May 3rd with some distinctly Germanic plain-speaking and anti-metropolitan politics. Its popularity rests squarely on this ill-defined yearning for a post-War world, nostalgia filling the vacuum where the party’s policies might otherwise be. 

Of course, the reality of today’s metrosexual Germany would hardly chime with the UKIP Weltanschauung. But this doesn’t prevent a sneaking admiration for the country’s no-nonsense approach to EU fads and for the way its institutions have maintained their character, nor for the parochial conservative attitude that underpins German politics. In short, the Germans “have the right attitude”.

It points to a rather sad proposition. Every UKIP voter secretly wants to be German. That is their tragedy. No German ever does. That is theirs.

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The year in pictures

The May Day holiday seemed more than usually loaded with significance this year: there is an ingrained notion that a prolonged cold snap ought to be followed by a flowering of ideas. May 1st, the pagan celebration of fecundity and the modern-day excuse for grassroots protest, was a neat turning point.

It reflects hopes that this summer will finally tip the European Union into crisis, in the positive sense. The word crisis after all contains the inference of  judging and deciding, and there hasn’t been much of that up to now. The past five years have instead been characterised by a kind of ‘turboparalysis’.

The term was coined by the author Michael Lind to describe a condition “of furious motion without movement in any particular direction, a situation in which the engine roars and the wheels spin but the vehicle refuses to move”.

This year’s big freeze only intensified that feeling. As winter did not turn to spring, the same old themes recurred – a member state in acute financial turmoil (Cyprus), rising populism (Italy), fantasies about the EU’s 2014 leadership change (Barroso III), a foreign policy in disarray (Mali) and trouble with minor international despots (North Korea).

Assad, Kim, Ahmadinejad

Assad, Kim, Ahmadinejad: Wack-a-mole of evil

The thaw has brought a perceptible change of mood. If winter felt like a mental grudge match with the elements – symbolised by The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan’s geopolitics rehash, and Jan Zielonka’s survey of the EU’s core and periphery, The New Political Geography of Europe – summer is softer.

Environmental determinism is out; Gaia is in. There is, for instance, talk of fostering a ‘European sense of place’, what the French call terroir: a process was kicked off 15 years ago to give citizens a physical sense of the EU, an entity otherwise defined by its shifting borders. It is now gearing up for the next phase.

Grillo, Monti, Merkel

The Italian elections: Grillo, Monti and Merkel

There have been allusions too to 1816, The Year Without Summer. That long winter famously spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a suitably bleak response to a famine-struck world. But the aftermath is associated with a thawing of political ideas that are said to have brought forth the modern liberal state.

The myth of a cultural flowering after a long winter therefore sits so deep that it may today be self-fulfilling, and there are indeed signs that the EU’s zombie politics are now giving way to something more vivid.

Last week, the Commission President tried to mobilise scientists, artists and intellectuals to deal with European issues. Predictably, his initiative suffers terribly from Commission speak – ‘A Narrative for Europe’, ‘version 2.0’, ‘an online portal for citizens’, ‘core cultural values’, ‘our image in third countries’. Still, it marks a shift.

Barroso I, II and III

Barroso I, II and III

Although there has always been talk of European integration as an “organic idea”, eurocrats have struggled to connect with Europe’s cultural life. Insofar as the creative arts featured on the Brussels radar, it was largely in terms of political marketing (see, for instance, the dismal Captain Euro).

A decade ago, there was a telling debate about what kind of capital city an entity like the EU needs. It pitted Umberto Eco against Rem Koolhaas, the Italian arguing for Brussels to become a space for cultural exchange, the Dutch architect advocating that the EU’s signature buildings simply be used to brand and market policies.

The recent reworking of the Commission logo shows which approach has prevailed until now, and the UK Independence Party, UKIP, may well have a point when it opposes European flags on public buildings on the grounds that they are not symbols but advertisements.

Even if Barroso’s initiative marks a refreshing change, though, it will do nothing to appease those who dislike thinkers and arty types. (Sensibly, the President’s cultural caravan will bypass the famously anti-intellectual UK and head to France, Germany and Warsaw).

Cameron, Merkel, Hollande: Monty Python's Three-Headed Knight

The EU in Mali: Monty Python’s Three-Headed Knight

Well, let them remain in the mud with their wheels spinning and engine fired up. The injection of culture into the EU’s technocracy might give it just the traction it needs, and not only because a pause for creative reflection would be conducive to judging and deciding.

The lack of effective European action reflected in Cyprus, Italy, Brussels, Mali and even North Korea highlights the dip in hegemony that comes from an absence of social cohesion at home. Culture, arts and ideas – the only things that really link Europeans – are just the tonic. There may be life in the EU yet.

 

ghosts_rescaled

Thatcher, Chavez, Anastasiades: Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

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Grounds for a European global strategy

Barack Obama’s support for a transatlantic free-trade agreement (TAFTA to us, TTIP to them) was widely welcomed as a boost to the EU. Yet, some pro-Europeans have since been quick to play it down. This may seem like an odd reaction, but the raw sense of relief that met the President’s February speech has worried them.

The TAFTA initiative was instinctively greeted as a means to anchor the US to Europe, to improve the EU’s resilience to globalisation and to trounce the Chinese – as a silver bullet, in other words, for an EU that is struggling to sustain itself. Fans of the EU are concerned that the bloc’s standing is being undermined.

They counter that the US doesn’t need anchoring in Europe. Its refocus towards Asia is designed to be in the EU’s interest as well its own, and its predicted energy self-sufficiency doesn’t amount to energy independence, meaning Washington will remain involved in the EU’s unstable neighbourhood if only to influence energy prices.

They also suggest that TAFTA is not just a distant prospect but a tough one. Tariffs are already low, meaning that progress will require the tricky harmonisation of regulatory regimes. And, although this will bring an aggregate economic boost (especially to the US, according to the latest projections), few individual employers will actually feel the difference, except perhaps in the form of increased competition.

As for the Chinese – why seek to trounce them? By some measures China is already the EU’s major trading partner, and its burgeoning middle class consumes just the kinds of unnecessary goods and services Europeans now specialise in. China’s stagnation not its economic rise is the real threat.

Well maybe. But if TAFTA remains so appealing, it’s because nobody has actually shown that the EU could flourish without it. Playing down the potential benefits of the agreement or the severity of the international situation is not the same as demonstrating that the EU has a realistic global strategy of its own.

Confidence in the EU’s capacity to hold its own internationally was not always this low. The long period of navel-gazing from the Constitutional Treaty to the euro crisis appears to have obscured an important fact: that the very point of the EU is its ability to handle international change.

The EU was established to balance out shifts in big power relations. Its internal policies – the single market, passport-free travel area, currency cooperation – allowed mistrustful West European states to cohere around common values and goals in the face of the Soviet threat. And, following the collapse of the USSR and the replacement of bipolarity by unipolarity, it was again the EU that provided the means for Europeans to accommodate newly-independent eastern states in the form of enlargement and neighbourhood policy.

Enlargement and neighbourhood policies were an important prong in the EU’s efforts to manage the ensuing wave of globalisation too, bringing close competitors under the bloc’s ambit. As part of this effort, the EU also became the first mover on issues from data protection to social-security coordination, inspiring international standards; it concertedly supported global institutions as a way to bind others; and, through redistributive policies such as development aid or the Social Funds, it weakened resistance to globalism amongst its discontents.

More recently, the EU has stretched to meet the challenge to global rules posed by emerging powers. Today’s hegemons tend to be of the regional variety. That means that they can ignore global norms and dominate the countries around them but lack the reach to solve bigger international problems like trade or the environment. In regionalism, the EU provides a possible answer, binding such countries into a local cooperative regime and using region-to-region cooperation to solve the bigger issues.

Of course, these approaches badly need adapting to take into account the EU’s recent weight-loss, the anachronistic overrepresentation of its members in global institutions, and the fact that the Union is a mere regional organisation in a globalised world. TAFTA and a strengthened transatlantic relationship could help the EU carry out that shift.

To achieve this, the EU would have to work hard to ensure that TAFTA negotiations involve the WTO at an early stage, are open and transparent to other states, and at the same time provide something of a gold standard for other regional trade regimes. In its current mood, however, this seems unlikely.

Today, the EU risks using any transatlantic trade agreement to cling to an outdated vision of unipolarity, to avoid integrating new powers into the international order, and to cement regionalism as a form of protectionism rather than international cooperation. In other words, the time for a strategic conversation is ripe.

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Island fever

The Chinese are at it. The Japanese are at it. The Brits and the Argentines are at it – all squabbling over small islands. There is even speculation that the US and Canada will revive their long-running dispute over little Machias Seal Island.

When large states are feeling small, it seems, small islands loom large. This is true not just of tiny, uninhabited outcrops. Independent and semi-independent islands are in the limelight too.

One reason for this is clear. Entitled to many of the same rights as large states, but without the same responsibilities, these islands pose an outrageous challenge to the international order and need to be brought back under control.

It is not just their tax practices, although this is the issue that currently defines the EU’s agenda. By selling passports to anyone passing, islands help criminals change identities and travel the globe undetected. And by conferring diplomatic recognition upon renegade countries, islands endanger global security.

There is a second reason too: entitled to many of the same rights as larger states, but without the same responsibilities, small islands are an outrageous challenge to the international order, and are therefore extremely useful allies to big countries.

Thanks to the competition caused by their tax regimes, small islands can be helpful to large countries wishing to impose fiscal discipline upon their partners or just hoping to excuse their own tax practices. And by handing out passports to all-comers, islands can ‘liberate’ the business elites and political opposition of repressive regimes – saving big states the need to intervene.

Small islands are even credited with a diplomatic daring which larger countries cannot afford to practice. Fearful of encouraging secessionist tendencies at home or of antagonising their international partners, large states are often too nervous to recognise breakaway countries. Small islands go where large states fear to tread.

This ambiguous status in an international system made for big players gives islands a significance quite disproportionate to their size. Take for instance Nauru (population: 9,000; size: 21 square kilometres; distinguishing features: looks from above suspiciously like a treasure island).

For years, China and Taiwan were locked in competition for Nauru’s diplomatic loyalty, with Nauru reportedly allowing itself to be bought first by one side then the other. Indeed, in 2002, when the Taiwanese president rocked the world by supporting a referendum on independence, his move was viewed as a reaction to Nauru’s sudden switch of loyalties to the People’s Republic.

The case of Nauru also shows how quickly islands can go from international pariahs to valued partners, depending on large states’ whims. In 2003, the US appears to have decided that the Nauruans’ passport-for-sale scheme was not a danger to international security after all. Just the opposite in fact: it offered a means to smuggle nuclear scientists out of North Korea. If reports are true, Nauru, the one-time bandit, suddenly found itself made deputy sheriff.

This special attitude towards islands – an attitude which does not seem to pertain to other small states – reflects the strong hold they exercise over the popular imagination. Blame that Christmas favourite, Treasure Island. For people living a routine mainland life, islands signify pirates or palm trees: they are either dangerous or alluring.

At one extreme are the harmless bores who view islands as a serious threat to international security and stability, can recite by heart the guidelines on good governance produced with a cheerful lack of irony by the EU, OECD or G20, and show an unhealthy interest in all forms of small-island deviance.

At the other are the escapists who see islands as an alluring alternative to mainland life and who secretly dream of seizing a rocky outcrop and establishing a libertarian utopia of their own.

Islands are thus either ‘unviable’  -  incapable of sustaining themselves without cheating on big states, and ripe for depopulation  -  or an escape  -  ripe for repopulation by mainlanders. Acknowledging instead that islands are in fact entities in their own right, capable of responsible self-regulation – within the same context of global interdependence that affects all countries – might help avoid unfortunate situations like Nauru’s.

After all, if the reports about 2003’s ‘Operation Weasel’ are accurate, Nauru’s citizens had just succeeded in stopping their government from selling passports on grounds of good governance, only to see the US reintroduce the practice for them.

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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.

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The Eurocrisis: a celebration of outsider thinking

A colourful bunch of political animals has emerged in the ruins of the EU’s single currency. Down in the political undergrowth, for instance, you’ll often find an Oborne, a large and irritable beast who doesn’t mind digging in the dirt. “Idiots!” he trumpets, as he tramples over meeker, non-native species.

Meanwhile, up in the trees you can hear the shrill cries of the Hannan. “It pains me to say I told you so,” he twitters, “but I really did tell you so”. And this prickly little creature is a Taleb. What’s he saying? Nobody knows, but doubtless he has just been proved right too.

Surprisingly, given that they seem to view our financial misery primarily as a source of personal vindication, these beasties are currently basking in public affection. The root of their popularity lies in the notion that they are far-sighted political outsiders who have been unfairly sidelined by The Establishment. If only someone had listened to them earlier!

This annoys the EU’s political insiders. They would argue that, if these individuals have been ignored over the years, it is for good reason: they almost certainly belong to one of those categories of public intellectual whom the world can readily do without.

Perhaps they are McCones, named after the hawkish head of the CIA in the 1960s. He happened to foresee the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his ideas about what caused it and how to resolve it were all wrong. The McCones’ problem is that, because they are right about one big thing, they think they are right about everything.

Perhaps they are Pauls, named after the perennial US presidential hopeful who has a habit of saying what everyone else already knows, but in a particularly outraged and obtuse manner. Their problem is they simply haven’t learnt the art of political compromise.

Or maybe they are Clarkes, named after the US official whose warnings about the 9/11 attacks went unheard. It may be because they fire off too many predictions at once, or because they have a penchant for cryptic neologisms, or just because they only have the strength of their convictions after their warnings actually came to pass. Whatever the reason, this group just doesn’t communicate properly at the right time.

Not so, say the outsiders: history has shown the McCones and Pauls and Clarkes of the past to be insightful individuals who just happened to be articulating a message which their governments didn’t want to hear. Such people, moreover, have a key role to play in any well-functioning political system. Their outsider knowledge is a useful counterpart to governments’ serial in-thinking.

Insider knowledge, the knowledge typical of government officials and ministers, is kennen, connaitre — being acquainted with and experiencing political realities first hand. Outsider knowledge, the knowledge typical of the academic or the backbench parliamentarian, is categorised as wissen, savoir — understanding politics from a critical distance.

Insiders see things in a compromised, practical way; outsiders, with greater theoretical clarity. In a well-functioning political system, both groups chat with one another. But if the dialogue between them dries up, insiders are left in their grey swamp of practicalities and compromises, and outsiders only have their black-and-white certainties.

So, is the euro-crisis the result of the way political insiders systematically sidelined critical outside-voices? Or is it down to the way that sceptical outsiders effectively disqualified themselves from the debate? Most likely, neither is the case: insiders and outsiders have an altogether more collusive relationship than either side likes to admit.

In reality, most political insiders love outside thinking. And they love it not because it is good—it seldom is—but because they are snobs. Years spent surrounded by official jobsworths mean they look down on the ideas produced by their administrative colleagues. To them, the outsider perspective seems exotic and untrammelled by practical concerns.

Outsiders find this flattering, and play along, generating ever more outlandish ideas. But don’t expect them to take responsibility when the shit hits the fan. Not our fault, they say, we were just brainstorming. And don’t expect the insiders to take responsibility either — after all, none of this was their idea.

In short: if we really do need these outsiders to get us out of our current political and financial mess, then it is only because they are precisely the kind of people who helped get us into it in the first place.

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Will the Poles smile for Mitt?

President Obama may be unpopular in Central and Eastern Europe, but only for speaking the truth about the inevitability of American disengagement. Mitt Romney cannot count on a warm welcome in Warsaw if he pretends this disengagement is reversible.

During his week away, of course, the US presidential hopeful will be mainly concerned to mobilise America’s overseas voters, lightening some wallets along the way. But he wants to do so against a backdrop of cheering foreigners.

That explains the choice of Poland for the grand finale of his tour. Whilst it may not be home to too many American citizens with full purses, Poland has certainly been marked down as a red state on the extended map of America.

Staunch allies of Washington during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Poles were famously annoyed by President Obama’s cancellation of the American missile-defence programme in Central and Eastern Europe and by the President’s recent, flat-footed comments on the Holocaust.

It sounds, then, like a sure thing for Mitt. Yet, Poland is unlikely to provide the pictures the campaign needs, and it’s not just because Warsaw is virtually empty of people during the holiday season.

For one thing, Poles are not currently minded to distinguish between different brands of American politician. If Governor Romney comes and bashes the incumbent’s record, he simply risks fuelling a blanket atlantiscepticism.

For another, Europeans have got wise to American electoral diplomacy. If a candidate makes a point of visiting a place during an election campaign, they know he expects this to be the highpoint of his popularity in the region. He will not be back any time soon.

Add to this the fact that Varsovians have an inkling of what is expected of them by the Romney team, and it jars with their own self-perception. They do not want to find themselves painted as the people of 20 years ago, hungry for American-style liberty and leadership.

There is, in short, an understanding that American disengagement from the region is irreversible rather than a question of political choice, and people here have no reason to prop up a fantasy. Times have moved on and so have the Poles.

This shift in thinking will be music to the ears of a government keenly trying to recalibrate its foreign policy. After the initial shock of the missile-defence cancellation, the government in Warsaw has accepted the idea of US disengagement first grudgingly and then with rather more enthusiasm.

Its recognition that Poland must stand on its own two feet has already paid off, allowing the government to develop a healthier and less deferential relationship with the US. This in turn has led to progress on thorny issues such as visa requirements for Poles visiting the States.

But it has also required of Poland a more significant investment in the shaky European Union. The logic is clear, if harder to sell: in an unforgiving international environment, the EU needs to be reformed and strengthened so that it is capable of providing security for its members.

With its economy growing, and defence spending fixed by law at 1.95% of GDP, Poland believes it can play a key role in that process. Yet, it also knows that its defence capabilities are rather small, and that its European partners are still more useful to it than it is to them.

Romney’s visit thus comes at an acutely sensitive moment. If he pretends that the US is still prepared to invest politically and militarily in the region, he could do lasting damage to Poland’s ambitions: he would raise popular doubts about the real necessity of investing in the EU, and he would give rise to suspicions about Poland’s commitment to the EU amongst its partners.

A weakened US badly needs a strong Poland in a strong EU. Will Governor Romney have the nerve to admit it?

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