By Thomas Wright
The idea that Britain should use its influence to remake the European Union is not an unreasonable one. There is a strong argument that the EU is on an unsustainable path — the eurocrisis is creating a dangerous divide between the periphery and core, the eurozone is encroaching upon the EU, there is a yawning gap between the people and their leaders, and Europe has much to do if it is to be competitive in a world dominated by the US and China. Britain is a country with the diplomatic skill and heft to move the EU in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this idea is not on the table. What prime minister David Cameron has offered is a referendum that strikes many international observers as diplomatically irrational.
Regardless of the pros and cons of membership, the four-year wait till a vote is held creates immense uncertainty about the British economy and Britain's role in the world. Investment decisions, diplomatic engagements and countless other initiatives will be placed on hold as long as it is unclear whether Britain will be in or out.
However, there is an even greater risk with the prime minister's approach. It is much more likely to lead to an exit than his publicly stated position suggests. Cameron has promised a vote if he renegotiates the terms of Britain's membership with the European Union. This way, he can have it both ways — rail against the status quo, but claim he is in favour of membership.
By implication, he has not promised a vote if he is unable to renegotiate the terms of membership. This is a rather gaping loophole. From the perspective of the rest of the EU, the easiest path is to refuse to renegotiate — hence, no referendum and no risk of Britain leaving. And it appears as if this is exactly what is happening.
Germany has taken treaty change off the table, partly, although not only, because of Cameron's speech, and other countries are wary of opening a Pandora's box. Unless something changes, the UK government's strategy is dead in the water.
Cameron will come under pressure to amend his promise to close this loophole. He could guarantee a referendum regardless of progress in negotiations. No doubt, this is what many in his party will urge. Then, if there is no renegotiation, he would campaign for an exit.
If there is a renegotiation, he would campaign to stay in. Such a change of course would restore his leverage, but it would also dramatically increase the likelihood of a UK exit from the European Union, since it introduces the possibility that the government may actually campaign to leave.
Meanwhile, there is little sign that the Cameron government has embarked upon the sort of campaign necessary to win hearts and minds in Europe, and that its vision for the future of the EU will leave it stronger and better able to compete in a century that is already shaping up to be hyper-competitive. Without an enlightened vision that can inspire all Europeans — with a robust diplomatic strategy to boot — the British initiative will be seen as a Trojan horse to undermine Europe as a whole to the benefit of a powerful faction inside one political party.
Instead, Cameron is offering a vision that has very limited appeal beyond Britain. It cuts directly against the desire of other states to find ways to enhance cooperation.
It appears as if some of Cameron's non-negotiable demands are equally non-negotiable, from the opposite viewpoint, for others. Remarkably, it is also something of an afterthought in Britain's diplomacy. Given the stakes, one would imagine that constructively reshaping the EU would be the organising principle of British foreign policy for some time to come.
Cameron and the Conservatives are correct to argue that there is nothing etched in stone that says the EU, as presently constructed, is the best and only way for Britain and other European nations to succeed in the world. One can support or oppose the EU, but it would be foolish to believe that the current way of doing things is the only way to do them.
However, they are wrong about something more fundamental — something that gets to the heart of what the 21st century is all about. The harsh truth is that in the 21st century, size matters. The history of the century will be written by giants like the United States, China and India. Europe is becoming less relevant because it remains too divided, not because it has gone too far.
If Britain is forced to go it alone, it will lose diplomatic influence and will be an observer of world events instead of a shaper of them.
The rest of the EU will also be weaker without Britain, which after all is one of only two countries in Europe (the other being France) that is a complete power, combining economic, military and political strength. Its departure will be a body blow to European influence and soft power. Others may also follow, compounding the problem.
European nations will only succeed if they act in concert. Anything that advances the disintegration of Europe, unless it is replaced by something else, will only accelerate their marginalisation in world affairs.
If Cameron wants to change the EU while protecting British interests, he must have a strategy that convinces other nations to change together. He must articulate an alternative vision of how a united post-EU Europe can act in concert in the 21st century. It will no doubt be difficult, but it is the only way that Europe will remain relevant in what may become the Pacific century.
The great blunder of Cameron's foreign policy is that it is actually not about changing Europe. It is about securing an exemption slip for Britain from many aspects of the EU. But there is no exemption slip from 21st century realities.
One of the reasons for the remarkable endurance of British power in the 19th century was the ability of its diplomats and leaders to comprehend their external environment and adopt an appropriate strategy. Historians may look back upon this period as one when the heirs to this noble approach buried their heads in the sand.
Thomas Wright is a fellow at the Brookings Institution in the Managing Global Order project. Previously, he was executive director of studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and senior researcher for the Princeton Project on National Security. Follow him on twitter @thomaswright08.
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