How far will Britain go to reform the EU?

There’s no way round it: 2013 was a good year for the British government in Europe. London won its battles. And credit where credit is due, it’s hard to argue with the man who wrote these words – Britain’s Europe Minister, David Lidington.

At the beginning of last year, the British Prime Minister diagnosed serious problems with the EU – too centralised, too unfriendly to business, too inward-looking. And, just twelve months on, Mr Lidington can name the fruits of the PM’s intervention: an EU-Canada trade deal; reductions in the EU budget; a European Patent Office.

Of course, London would probably concede that these breakthroughs are not wholly down to it. The trade deal was underway long before the PM’s speech. The Patent Office was actually held up by London. And a small wasteful budget is less of a victory than the large effective one other countries were aiming for.

But perhaps the UK’s latest reform effort will convince the cynics. This is Britain’s bid to roll back the EU’s ‘free movement’ regime – the system whereby EU nationals get to work throughout the bloc.

Last week the British government talked about combating the incidence of ‘welfare tourism’ by EU citizens and hinted that destination-countries like Britain should be allowed to introduce annual quotas on newcomers.

Despite the blow-back from some other capitals, London has so far won two decisive victories. The first was to bring some honesty to a debate which impinges upon core aspects of national sovereignty. Quite simply, the UK has pointed out that when the Commission refers to ‘free movement’ what it really means is ‘immigration’.

Its second key victory has been to assemble a coalition of Western states in favour of restriction. The British Home Secretary has marshalled her colleagues in the Netherlands, Austria and Germany into signing a letter on EU migrants and their exploitation of the welfare system. This effectively broke the bond between the EU’s east and west.

And so, today, what once would have been eurosceptic scifi is actually coming to pass. The EU is being readied to reopen its treaties and restrict free movement. Even Britain’s pro-European deputy PM is on side, describing as “incomprehensible” the current right of EU workers to claim welfare benefits for family members not resident in the UK.  We’re all #TeamLidington now.

Or not quite all. Some commentators still cling to the idea that free movement is a key underpinning of the internal market and an indispensable safety valve for the Eurozone. Well perhaps they should watch the action replay, because Britain’s current reform drive looks even more impressive on a second showing. So committed is Britain to winning its arguments in Europe and that it is prepared to worsen the EU’s faults just so that it can reform them.

For one thing, it is the UK that has gone furthest to turn free movement into a system of mass immigration. It was the UK which opened its borders in 2004 and allowed in far more workers than it could handle. And it was the UK that systematically failed to make use of the domestic and European scope to steer these workers.

In the same vein, it is the UK whose reform proposals could well end up increasing immigration. The right to claim benefits for family members outside the UK reduces the need for family reunification, keeping workers mobile. The removal of this right, and the threat of introducing quotas, could persuade workers in Britain to have their families join them and stay put.

But all this would be meaningless without the UK’s real success – breaking the conversation between east and west. After all, neither east nor west wants an EU system of immigration. Not the UK, Germany and France, despite the economic and geopolitical benefits; not Central Europe or the Baltics which fear brain drain and demographic decline.

What both sides want is a system of free movement – of short-term, temporary labour mobility. Under this system, the west gains flexible high-qualified workers who do not need to be integrated long-term. The east gains remittances and expertise as well as a model for exchange with neighbours of its own like Ukraine.

By creating a powerful bloc of western destination countries, the UK has changed the conversation. The mobile are no longer seen as ambitious high-qualified individuals but as welfare tourists. And when the Commission talks of ‘boosting free movement’ it is accused of boosting mass migration, rather than – say – encouraging return-flows.

Clearly, it’s an impressive record. If the UK continues to work hard to undermine the basic workings of the EU, damage intergovernmental relations and gridlock the system, it will create just the kind of inward-looking, centralised, unfriendly bloc it loves to reform. The Britain’s taboo-busting status really is a boon to everyone.

 

Twitter: @roderickparkes

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The trouble with Europe’s big thinking? Europe’s big states.

Europe, it seems, is slowly warming up for a new strategic discussion about its place in the world. Foreign ministers have been prodding the European Council to dispense the necessary mandate when it meets in December. This seems sensible – even sceptics would presumably prefer a thinking-EU to a headless bureaucratic mess, and the bloc’s 2003 security strategy is badly outdated.

And yet, there is one small problem. The December summit is already scheduled to discuss the long-term future of European defence capabilities, a discussion that should really be had after the EU has clarified its strategic goals. Right now it looks set to be the other way round, with leaders defining Europe’s means before they identify the ends for which these are to be employed.

Why would an experienced Chair like Herman Van Rompuy do things backwards like this, leaving the discussion on capabilities to expedience and commercial opportunism, and rendering the subsequent strategic debate hollow? Does he secretly believe that Eurozone issues will anyway hijack the December agenda? Or is he just channelling a general scepticism towards big thinking?

If it’s the latter, then he isn’t alone. To the frustration of MEPs, President Barroso’s 2013 State of the Union speech contained no vision of the EU in the world. Stung by the confusion surrounding his last Big Idea (‘a federation of European states’), he simply listed his legislative agenda, presumably communicating that the EU is still open for business despite next year’s European elections.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also shies away from articulating her big thinking. Having written what turned out to be a rather interesting critique of the work of the EU’s external action service earlier this year, for instance, she slipped it out in the middle of the summer break. The EEAS review caused nary a splash.

Why the shyness towards big ideas? HVR, Ashton and Barroso might well point to upcoming personnel changes in the EU or the spectre of Brexit or populism. But there is something more. Strategy seems discredited in international affairs, as vividly shown by the gap between Obama’s sales pitch (rebuilding at home, resetting with Russia, pivoting to Asia) and his record (spying on Europe).

For their part, Europeans have the feeling that where they are pursuing some kind of bigger objective, it is backfiring. Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU’s offer of closer association for Ukraine has garnered rather more attention than Ashton’s successes in facilitating a deal on the Iranian nuclear program.

At the same time, muddling-through has been scoring some hits. Berlin believes that its election-imposed moratorium on big thinking saved the Euro by reducing popular expectations of a gridlocked system and loosening markets’ hold on the political agenda. And in Syria, with France and the US daring each other to jump first, Moscow’s low cunning trumped their last stand for enlightenment thinking.

So, is big thinking now a thing of the past, made redundant by the sheer complexity of today’s international context (the spread of democracy followed by an outbreak of bad democratic choices, of prosperity followed by a wave of authoritarianism and disorder, of Transatlantic norms followed by a sharp decline in Transatlantic muscle)? Not necessarily.

The real trouble with today’s big thinking lies less with the complexity of the world than with the big states still trying to dominate it.

Too big for its region, too small for the world was how Kissinger once described Germany, but his observation might just as well apply to all of today’s emerging players. China, Russia, Brazil, India, Turkey are drunk on the extent of their regional power and shocked by their lack of global clout. And just as they are the wrong size for the international system, so too are their ideas – either too big or too small.

This applies just as well to Europe and the Big-3 of Germany, France and the UK. When the EU downgraded the system of rotating national presidencies in 2009, and upgraded HVR, Ashton and Barroso, it effectively created a political vacuum at the centre which the Big-3 have tried to fill. The result is a strategic blockade, with the trio variously going it alone or seeking to define the EU’s direction unilaterally.

And yet, the Big-3’s right to define the EU’s strategic agenda is not set in stone. A band of medium-sized states, nimbler, more consensual, more instinctively European, rather less pompous, are stepping in. Indeed, it is Sweden, Spain, Poland and Italy that have been pushing hardest for a strategic debate – medium-sized states attempting to provide medium-sized thinking.

For that reason if no other, Van Rompuy’s apparent readiness to wait a little longer with the EU’s strategic discussion may pay off. In 2014, there will be new Presidents of the Commission and European Council and a new EU foreign policy chief. It will be interesting to see whether they liberate themselves somewhat from the Big-3 and look instead to a different class of member state.

 

twitter: @roderickparkes

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Germany: what does continuity actually mean?

Continuity on Europe is predicted from a new German government. For Poland, as for other EU states, that sounds significant. But what does it actually mean? With discussions underway on banking union and with European elections on the horizon, wonks in Brussels and Warsaw have been looking into their crystal ball. They moot a plan, and its consequences.

Step 1. Mrs Merkel makes her move.

November 2013 and Berlin is still refusing to play ball on banking union: electoral success for her party has translated into a minefield for coalition formation, Mutti mutters. But the truth is that the longer she prevaricates, the stronger her hand becomes in Brussels, and the Chancellor cannot condone a measure obliging small German banks to prop up flabby foreign institutions.

It is not until December that the German finance minister finally triggers an extraordinary ministerial meeting to – as he puts it – “kick off” the discussion on the Single Resolution Mechanism. Would his colleagues care to discuss a German blueprint for SRM, he asks – he just happens to have one with him. He makes no mention of an earlier Commission proposal.

The French, the Spanish and the Italians are fretting about the European Central Bank’s upcoming asset review and need a quick agreement to bolster their banking sector. Little Lithuania is in charge of proceedings in Council and is keen to close a really big dossier. No one is in a position to resist. The German proposal becomes the proposal.

Step 2. A beer, a sausage and a political deal.

Easing this blueprint past the European Parliament will require a little German lubrication. Euromed MEPs, keen to show they can milk Berlin, are the biggest obstacle to this modest document. Still, there is a key to taming Strasbourg and it comes in the unlikely form of the Parliament’s reigning President, German Socialist Martin Schulz.

When Schulz meets Merkel to discuss his future, his hand is strong. The SPD had been pushing its man Jorg Asmussen for Federal Finance Minister, only accepting Schulz’s promotion to Commission President in return for backing down. Merkel, ready for a grand coalition which could finally destroy the SPD, has acceded. But Schulz, always tricky, demurs. Secure me French support, he says.

So Merkel woos Hollande. Her proposal, she hints, will not only put a Socialist in charge of the Commission: it will marginalise Britain. If the pair can agree on a weak version of banking union, not based on treaty change or Article 352, this will deny London a veto, in turn reducing the non-euro member’s leverage over SRM and the coming round of EU appointments.

Step 3. Realpersonalpolitik

With Paris in her pocket and Schulz seemingly consigned to a Commission straightjacket, Merkel has a free hand with the EU’s more political posts. Michel Barnier, the rightist French Commissioner and sponsor of the original SRM proposal, is first to receive a sinecure – the promise of presiding over Parliament for at least half of its next term.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen is next. He may have meddled during his time at the helm of NATO but giving him the presidency of the European Council would be a way of sidelining another Nordic liberal – Olli Rehn. Her former pet is in danger of developing ideas of his own about the future of the Eurozone and the shallow Rasmussen is preferable. AFR is the new HVR.

But it is Barroso’s demise that she most savours. With no national politician ready to estrange domestic voters by standing as the Right’s lead candidate in the euro-elections, he had been quietly sure of being tapped. This could have ushered him back into the Commission for a third term. Merkel, waiting patiently for years to stick the knife in, squashes the idea.

The right people in the wrong places

November 2018 and Europe has nose-dived out of its crisis into a changed world: Russia is responding viciously to the EU’s ‘liberal arms race’ in the eastern neighbourhood, and the bloc’s shrunken economies are being forced to defend their continued membership of the world’s various G-formats. Even hard-bitten cynics regret the lack of calibre at the head of the EU.

Admittedly there wasn’t much talent on offer in 2014 – not in western and southern Europe at any rate. But elsewhere? Too new and small to deserve a major post, too large and self-assured to be massaged into one, Poland missed out. With it went a chance for the EU to show that it was ready to handle catch-up countries let alone develop a real strategic bearing.

Now things may change. The Merkel system has been despatched by a disgruntled CDU politico, David McAllister, who had been reckoning with the cosy sinecure that went to Schulz. It has left remarkably little trace. Yet, Poland’s moment may have passed too. Commiserated with the perspective of playing a lead role in Europe and replacing a marginal UK, the country overheated, to sounds of ‘I told you so’ from Berlin.

 

Twitter: @RoderickParkes

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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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