Is the growing noise in Britain over its potential EU exit a sign of a deeper crisis within the continent?
Speaking at a conference in Berlin in October of 2012, British Foreign Secretary William Hague observed that “public disillusionment with the EU in Britain is the deepest it has ever been.“ While large segments of British society have grown weary of “Brussels“ and everything it presumably stands for, and with politicians catering to and reinforcing this weariness, many Europeans are starting to wonder aloud whether the UK really is an indispensable part of Europe – or whether it would not be better to part ways in somewhat amicable fashion.
This is a dangerous dynamic, to say the least. Some of the criticism directed at London from the continent has been understandable. However, Europeans on the continent have to recognize the very particular public opinion in Britain, and they should recognize what Britain can bring to the table.
The biggest countries in the European Union – Britain and Germany among them, evidently – have always had different ideas about the shape and the purpose of the European Union. But until the crisis exposed the fundamental flaws in the construction of EU and Eurozone, it was comparatively easy, albeit sometimes ugly, to bridge these differences. No longer: the debate about how much Europe we need in terms of institutions and transfer of sovereignty in order to emerge from the crisis and to build a foundation for a functioning Europe of the future is also a debate about whether Britain will continue to be a part of a EU. It’s impossible to know how this will play out over the coming months and years. But there is a real risk of an eventual British exit.
Under these circumstances, it is all the more important to zero in on issues where our mutual interest overwhelmingly calls for closer cooperation, not alienation. Foreign and defence policy is one of them.
At first, that might seem counterintuitive. After all, foreign and defence policy has been particularly prone to predominantly national policies and has been characterized by a lack of joint European progress. Take defence procurement, for instance, where vested interests reign supreme, from the contractors to the armed forces and politicians. The failed merger between EADS and BAE Systems certainly is a very good, and regrettable, example for this. Moreover, it is true that European states have different strategic cultures and priorities, that they put different emphases on the importance of security policy and that they are reluctant to create dependencies on others in this field.
Thus, common European foreign and defence policy looks to be even messier than European affairs in other policy areas. And yet, it is not altogether unrealistic to expect much deeper and more meaningful defence cooperation in Europe in the foreseeable future. Those who merely consider concepts like “Smart Defence“ and “Pooling and Sharing“ old ideas somewhat repackaged underestimate the pressures bearing down on the European defence establishment.
First, the defence sector is clearly feeling a tightening of financial screws. Second, greater demands are being placed on the armed forces, which will only further increase as the United States continues to ‘rebalance’ toward the Pacific, putting even greater pressure on Europe to be able to operate in its own neighbourhood should a crisis occur. Finally, the unpredictability of the future security environment will require greater coordination and effectiveness from European militaries.
In the long run, closer defence cooperation within Europe will not only save money, increase trust, and improve capabilities. Closer defence cooperation may well also aid in converging strategic cultures, making more cooperation likely, creating a sort of virtuous circle.
That being said, we should not expect any miracles, let alone steps toward a European army. This does remain a worthwhile long-term objective, but on such an exceptionally loaded and complicated issue, incremental change may be the best we can hope for. Should Europe ever move ahead decisively on defence matters, the impulse will have to come from the very top, with leaders taking truly game-changing decisions on the scope and depth of cooperation.
It goes almost without saying that any such attempts to pool and share (more) military assets in Europe would be unthinkable without the strong involvement of the United Kingdom. The same is true when it comes to foreign policy and a strategic global outlook in a more general sense. We are all aware that the relative importance and clout of European states in the world will continuously diminish over the coming years and decades. We will either act largely together or be largely irrelevant – dependent on the United States to safeguard a liberal international order. If Europe is to play the role of a major global player that is able to defend its interests and values in an increasingly complex and complicated multipolar international order, Britain will have to be an essential part of that.
As Timothy Garton Ash wrote recently, “Why not let Britain take a leading role in a hard core for foreign and security policy, while Germany leads in the economic and monetary one? France would, of course, continue to play a very important part in both. Countries like Poland hope in time to do the same.” Britain’s experience in diplomacy and international affairs, including its seat in the UN Security Council, its able military, its championship of free trade, and its function as a bridge over the Atlantic are critical assets. Without them, Europe in the future would likely take a more narrow, inward-looking, maybe even protectionist perspective. In the words of German journalist Jan Ross, the EU without the UK would be a “Europe with a shrunk horizon”.
However, Britain stands to lose even more should it opt for a course outside of Europe. ‘Independence’ from Brussels may for some time feel liberating, but, in the medium and long run, would harm Britain’s prosperity severely. Tony Blair deserves applause for drawing attention to the negative consequences of a British exit from the EU.
Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski put it this way in a speech in Blenheim Palace in September of 2012: “Your interests are in Europe. It’s high time for your sentiments to follow. Your leaders need to make a more vocal case for your European interests.“ He added, “You could, if only you wished, lead Europe’s defence policy.“
Indeed, Britain could. And, hopefully, not too far into the future, it will.
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