Cameron’s backward-looking speech

Britain is at a fork in the road with a choice to make about what role it will play in the 21st century. Yet, David Cameron’s long-awaited speech about Europe is a miscalculation that will leave everyone frustrated.

British PM David Cameron. Demotix/Giacomo Quiici. All rights reserved.British PM David Cameron. Demotix/Giacomo Quiici. All rights reserved.

With the speech, British euro-skeptics are denied an immediate referendum on EU membership, and pro-Europeans in Britain will lose their voice in the debate about Europe’s future while their country’s energy is wasted on renegotiating existing powers. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to deal with a quest for special treatment rather than have a reliable British partner at a time of uncertainty. Worst of all, Cameron’s promise to go for a cosmetic renegotiation followed by a campaign to stay in the EU is designed to obscure rather than resolve the fundamental dilemma facing his compatriots – a choice between two radically different British futures.

On the one hand, the euro-skeptics, who have held Cameron hostage in parliamentary votes on Europe, have a clear agenda. They have set out a modern argument that is very different from the blimpish isolationism of past decades. In the place of old arguments about European super-states destroying British sovereignty, they have an entirely new narrative of a Britain “tethered to the corpse” of the euro zone. They claim that the single market ties British business in red tape; the Customs Union holds Britain hostage to the protectionist lobbies of all member states; and the free movement of people is flooding its labor market with immigrants. The EU seems a fossilized relic of the 20th century in a new digital world. What matters to the skeptics, in the words of conservative columnist Matthew d’Ancona for GQ, is “not post-colonial reach or the ability to fight alongside America in military interventions, but the real freedom to trade globally.” He concludes: “What is so bad about being a new Singapore off the shore of Europe?”

The new euro-skeptics think that the modern era transcends geography, uniting the world economically and politically in the cloud. The countries they admire the most – such as Australia, Dubai and Singapore – have successfully managed to carve out a global role without being hung up on trying to shape the world. What the new skeptics want flows naturally from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Cameron’s foreign policy of trying to pull back from what Cameron saw as the “over-reach” of the Blair era.

The “Brameron” era has been characterized by a move away from both Washington and the EU, a sense of the primacy of economic diplomacy, and a greater interest in the troops in Afghanistan and aid workers in Africa than the pursuit of traditional influence. The intellectual rationale for this move is that while Britain may enter a “new Elizabethan age” where it retains a global outlook, it should refuse to be drawn into disputes about the shape of the euro in Europe’s backyard, in which it has little interest.

To diplomats and statesmen, the location of the skeptics is cloud cuckoo land. They see the new “Little Britain” credo that “small is beautiful” as a betrayal of Britain’s historic role and a needless emasculation of the influence that had been won back so painfully after the Suez. As one very senior official said to me: “For the last few centuries, Britain has been in the cockpit of global affairs. For the next few we will need to get used to life on the margins.”

At the end of November, former Prime Minister Tony Blair returned to the political scene to argue that pro-Europeans also need to radically recast the case for Europe to counter the false claims of the skeptics. “Sixty-six years ago when the [European] project began, the rationale was peace. Today it is power,” he said. Blair argued that as power shifts in the world, the only way for Britain to avoid irrelevance is to combine with other Europeans – uniting the world’s biggest market and the considerable political, diplomatic and military resources of Europe’s nations behind a common voice.

This is in fact the best way – maybe the only way – to gain access to new markets and to have a voice in shaping the rules of engagement in the multi-polar world of the 21st century. Rather than contracting out the big decisions to Washington and Beijing, Europeans should unite in an attempt to build a G3 world.

Blair is banking on the fact that his compatriots – whose country at one point or another has controlled all but 14 of the 200 nations in the world – have not lost the will to power. In one of the more narcissistic and revealing passages in his memoir, A Journey, he writes: “I always reckoned that even the ones who didn’t like me (quite a few) or didn’t agree with me (a large proportion) still admired the fact I counted, was a big player, was a world and not just a national leader.”

For the last 50 years, British foreign policy has been a two-legged affair, balancing the “special relationship with the United States” with membership in the European Union. Today, both these pillars are collapsing. President Barack Obama gives flesh to many European fantasies about American leadership, but he leads a country that is pivoting its energy and attention from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At the same time, Europe is recasting its institutions and projects.

The two questions for Europe are whether the EU will integrate enough to put the euro on a sustainable footing – and whether this can be done in a way that does not destroy Europe’s three other political projects: the single market, pacification of the European neighborhood, and the projection of global power. For Blair, Britain cannot afford to sit out these big debates in a passive outer tier of the EU.

Britain can attempt to help write the rules of the 21st century as an engaged and leading force in the European pole of an increasingly multipolar world. Or it can aspire to a future as a global financial center – a new Singapore – that seeks to take advantage of the openings in a global system run by others. Both prospects are viable, but they involve tough choices that go to the heart of Britain’s national character.

The tragedy of Cameron’s Europe speech is that the British people will be denied the chance to choose between these options. Rather than joining with other members of the EU in a debate about our common future, he will launch a chimerical quest to renegotiate obscure powers. The uncertainty this will create for global business is troubling, but equally worrying is its effect on Britain’s standing in the world.

As the rest of the continent grapples with questions about currencies, political union, and the global balance of power, the British political class will engage in a solipsistic debate about which aspects of the common fisheries policy or the working-time directive they should opt out of. Instead of offering a choice for a European future that Britain can play a role in shaping, Cameron is trying to renegotiate the past.

This article has been previously published as part of the author's column on Reuters.

About the author

Mark Leonard is Co-Founder and Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think-tank. He tweets @markhleonard.