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The UK's vanishing European influence

The UK has a choice over whether to be a small player on the margins of Europe. But to become so without any serious national debate is surely a major error.
Kirsty Hughes
24 November 2011

As the euro crisis slithers ever more out of control, the UK's coalition government appears insouciant at Britain's ever decreasing influence in European Union politics and decision-making. While David Cameron is already talking up the euro crisis as an excuse for the UK's – cuts-induced – faltering rate of economic growth, the UK's actual influence in Brussels is at its lowest ebb for decades.

The fact that the EU accounts for around half of British exports, or that in a multipolar world the EU urgently needs a joint approach to key global issues (including climate change, the Arab Spring, human rights, the role of Russia, China etc) appears not to bother Cameron and his Conservative colleagues at all (although Nick Clegg did call a small LibDem meeting in October to discuss how to maintain any UK influence from the margins). 

The Merkel-Cameron meeting in Berlin last Friday threw into sharp contrast the different roles of Germany (playing the central political role for better or worse in determining how the EU manages the euro crisis) and the UK (Cameron having pressed for re-assessment of the EU's working time directive in return for allowing German-driven treaty change to underpin further integration of the eurozone). While Britain and the Tories continue their obsession with relatively minimal EU social directives, the big strategic, political challenges and continental decisions are left to the other member states. 

Cameron is not alone: many British commentators appear unable to see quite how marginalised the UK is in a two-speed EU (and that such a two-speed EU has existed already for several years). They are surprised that the UK's combination of schadenfreude at the euro crisis and disengagement from any major political role in the EU, leads to criticism and irritation in other European member states. 

Over the years, the UK has not only opted out of the euro, but also the Schengen passport-free zone, and various aspects of EU cooperation on justice and home affairs. The Cameron government is doing its utmost to limit any development of the EU's common foreign and security policy. While most EU member states have expressed concerned at the limited performance of the EU's foreign policy supremo Cathy Ashton, the UK government has cautioned her to do less not more, and is consistently acting so as to inhibit her and EU ambassadors from speaking too often for the EU as a whole. 

Along with these opt-outs, the UK's perennial outbursts of euroscepticism – seen most recently in the Tory backbench rebellion on the House of Commons vote on having a referendum on the UK's position in the EU – have marred much of the four decades of the UK's EU membership. To be constantly criticising the economic and political club you are in, while accumulating opt-outs, does not amount to a coherent foreign policy strategy. So it is hardly surprising that the eurocrisis has finally unleashed a depth of irritation felt across the rest of the EU at the UK's positioning and behaviour. 

Outside the euro crisis?

Even so it may seem inevitable, in the face of the euro crisis,  that the UK is marginalised while the eurozone meet in summits of the 17 member states, with Merkel – with Sarkozy in tow – calling the shots. But the euro crisis and the management of the euro crisis are impacting on European (and global) demand, on growth, on unemployment, on European and global business and consumer confidence, on financial markets, and on banking sector viability. This is determining the economic health or otherwise (mostly otherwise) of the European economy of which the UK is a part, with wider political impacts across Europe which will also impact on the UK. 

In a worst case (and not so unlikely) scenario, the break up of the eurozone could lead to the  break up of the EU,  with the return to the continent of protectionism, right wing extremism and, at worst, conflict. However reluctantly, the UK has chosen to be a member of the EU for almost 40 years now. But the UK is not in the room and not influential in any of the key discussions of how to handle the crisis despite its gravity. David Cameron and George Osborne pronounce on the euro crisis from afar as if Cameron thought he was prime minister of Canada. 

Even after the desperate fiasco of the Iraq war and the EU splits that accompanied it, Tony Blair still sought and maintained influence at EU summits: there was considerable talk back then of the 'big three' of Germany, France and the UK, with smaller member states fearing this could be a dominating directoire of the 'three bigs' . Gordon Brown threw much of this influence away, his irritation at EU finance ministers meetings being well known, and his late arrival as prime minister at the signing ceremony for the Lisbon Treaty perfectly summing up the UK’s failure to play the EU political game. 

But it is hard to imagine either Blair or Brown sitting on the sidelines in this most profound of European economic crises. Sweden and Poland (also not in the euro) have done what they can to ensure they still have a voice, including making token payments towards the EU's bailout fund. Such an obvious strategic move on the part of the UK would create a major outcry, beginning in the Conservative Party (with Labour far too cowardly to protest).

Keeping a low profile in the EU

Until the backbench-sponsored House of Commons debate on a UK referendum on EU membership this October, Cameron did his best to downplay EU issues at home. Lacking a coherent overall foreign policy – since having UK trade as the top priority appears to be a trade policy not a foreign policy – speeches by Cameron and Hague have repeatedly relegated the EU to a position behind the Commonwealth, keeping EU references to a minimum while talking up a multipolar world.  The FCO's web page on top foreign policy priorities does not mention the EU; on a 'global issues' page of the FCO site, the EU comes about half way down a list of twenty. 

When Hague finally mentioned the EU some way into a major foreign policy speech he gave in July this year, he said the following: "The EU is at its best as a changing network where its members can make the most of what each country brings to the table." Quite what this means is unclear – its purpose may simply be not to upset the Tory sceptics. Strategic it is not. The FCO website is at least a little clearer on the government's aims within the EU – in a section labelled 'The UK's relationship with the EU' (again as if the UK is outside the Union): "We’ll be working together with the EU on trade, on the single market, on economic growth, delivering real benefits for Britain and British people." But can Cameron  sidelining the UK in the EU's deepest ever economic crisis really claim to deliver any of these benefits? It would seem focus on benefits for the UK is not the government's real aim or strategy. 

Some Conservative commentators and MEPs have suggested that Cameron and Hague would rather be out of the EU, like Switzerland or Norway, while still in the single market.  But Switzerland and Norway have to follow most single market rules while having no say in their formulation. It is more than a little bizarre that some sceptics want to take away the UK's voice and vote while still having to follow Brussels' rules – a genuine recipe for being under Brussels' thumb. 

But there is little opposition to Cameron's sidelining of the UK in Europe. The LibDems, despite Nick Clegg's background as long-serving LibDem MEP are woefully quiet. Labour has said little, cautious in the face of a widespread public and elite euroscepticism which new Labour in government did so little to tackle. Douglas Alexander's recent speech on the EU called for 'a modern mature patriotism' and criticised the EU's tendency to use flags and anthems, as if it is a nation, before going on to emphasise once again the benefits of the single market. It could have been delivered by Cameron. Alexander went on to call for 'a hard-headed view' of Britain's national interests in the forthcoming EU treaty negotiations. 

This is weak indeed. Where is the call by Miliband or Alexander joining with other EU social democratic leaders for Merkel and Sarkozy to stop appeasing financial markets, plan for a huge European 'green new deal' to tackle unemployment and promote inclusive growth and competitiveness – strategies, in short, not based on neoliberal free market economics? 

The UK is heading not only towards irrelevance but the exit door in the European Union. None of the major UK political parties is facing up to any serious debate or discussion on this. Maybe Cameron is being prescient in talking to the EU as if from the distance of Canada: the UK, unless it changes course, will in its future have as much influence over the EU as Canada does over the US, whether on economic or foreign policy. Certainly, the UK has a choice over whether to be a small player on the margins of Europe. But to become so without any serious national debate is surely a major error.

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