It’s a long way back from fool to cool Bri­tan­nia


The New European - - Agenda -

Com­pare and con­trast two events, two eras. Mid-may 1999: amid the splen­dour of the City Hall in Aachen, the an­cient Ger­man city that bor­ders Bel­gium and the Nether­lands, Tony Blair was re­ceiv­ing the Charle­magne prize, awarded for ser­vice to the unity of Europe. He was fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Jean Mon­net, the brain­child be­hind the Euro­pean Union, Va­clav Havel, Hel­mut Kohl and Winston Churchill.

The UK, he de­clared, must shed its “am­biva­lence” to­wards Europe. Europe, he said, must show greater steel in the face of dic­ta­tor­ships. Wher­ever the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter went, he was feted. He was the new kid on the block, mil­len­nial man, de facto king of Europe. At his first sum­mit, EU lead­ers were in­vited to set off down an Am­s­ter­dam street in uni­son for a photo call. They in­dulged Down­ing Street of­fi­cials and let Blair go in front. The mes­sage was: the Brits have caught up with us, and are even set­ting the pace.

Now look. Brexit may be re­spon­si­ble in very large part, but the di­min­ish­ing of Bri­tain had started be­fore. Iraq didn’t help – Ge­orge Bush, with Blair by his side, di­vid­ing the con­ti­nent into New Europe and Old Europe. As Blair’s en­thu­si­asm for the Euro­pean project waned, so busi­ness re­turned to usual. Gor­don Brown slowed it down fur­ther. We re­treated to our de­fault po­si­tion, the is­land na­tion, wag­ging our fin­gers, wav­ing our plas­tic union flags and ob­sess­ing about past glo­ries. Fog over the Chan­nel, Europe cut off.

In 2014, one episode demon­strated our marginal­i­sa­tion with painful clar­ity. Rus­sia had fo­mented an up­ris­ing in eastern Ukraine. In Kiev, the pro-moscow lead­er­ship was be­ing forced out by a pro-democ­racy up­ris­ing. It was time for the EU to step in and pre­side over cru­cial peace talks. Lead­ing this were Ger­many and France – so far, so un­sur­pris­ing – and Poland. Bri­tain was nowhere to be seen. One might ar­gue, with a cer­tain jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that the Poles had an im­por­tant re­gional role to play, with their his­tor­i­cal links to Ukraine. But that would be to ig­nore the big­ger point: the UK was no longer seen as part of the en­gine room of Europe.

David Cameron was left to is­sue a state­ment prais­ing the work of his EU part­ners. That was one year be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion and his fool­hardy de­ci­sion to com­mit him­self to a ref­er­en­dum. The rest, as they say...

The no­tion of Bri­tain go­ing it alone, with­out Europe, was al­ways based on two fal­la­cies. The first was that we would rise again as a Sin­ga­pore or Dubai on the Thames. That might be all well and good, ex­cept that even for a Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment pro­mot­ing the virtues of aus­ter­ity, such a model would have re­quired a dis­man­tling of the last ves­tiges of the wel­fare state.

Theresa May demon­strated no in­cli­na­tion for that. Rather the re­verse: her lit­tle-her­alded Red To­ry­ism sug­gested a move away from low-tax lib­er­tar­i­an­ism so beloved of right-wing think-tanks. The other fal­lacy was the so-called spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the United States.

I have lost count of the num­ber of US diplo­mats who would give me a wry smile at the very men­tion of the phrase. That’s our favour to you guys, was the mes­sage. It’s all non­sense, but we’ll do what we can to make you feel good about your­selves.

Blair’s post 9/11 al­liance with Bush was a last-gasp at­tempt to keep alive an idea that was long past its sell-by. Barack Obama piv­oted to­wards Asia and just about made it over to cook burg­ers with Cameron on the Num­ber 10 bar­be­cue. As for Don­ald Trump, he doesn’t think much of the present in­cum­bent – for all her faults, Theresa May is not the kind of dic­ta­tor and hu­man rights abuser that the pres­i­dent has a soft spot for.

Hence not just sad­ness, anger and frus­tra­tion in Euro­pean chan­cel­leries, but con­ster­na­tion. The man­ner of the agree­ment by the EU27 spoke vol­umes. An­noyed that their Sun­day had been dis­turbed, they spent less than an hour ap­prov­ing it last week­end. De­sul­tory was per­haps the most ap­pro­pri­ate ad­jec­tive.

What did we Brits think we were play­ing at? We have good in­tel­li­gence, an ad­mired cadre of diplo­mats, so how come we chose – to coin a phrase – to give up on the worst al­liance, ex­cept all the oth­ers that were avail­able?

The chronol­ogy of Bri­tain and the EU has been one of dis­com­fort and threats. No sooner had we joined in 1973, we were won­der­ing whether to head for the door. No sooner had that been set­tled in 1975, Mar­garet Thatcher started to throw the toys out of her pram. She achieved the re­bate, she said up yours to Delors, but still we weren’t happy. Even out­side the euro and Schen­gen, we wanted more.

The biggest irony of all was our in­sis­tence on broad­en­ing to the for­mer Com­mu­nist coun­tries of the East, who would flock over to us, lead­ing to the fears about free­dom of move­ment about which the PM so ob­sesses.

Now, even if the stars aligned – the With­drawal Agree­ment was voted down, a Peo­ple’s Vote was held, and the coun­try voted to re­verse the 2016 de­ci­sion – what would be our re­la­tion­ship with Europe? Why would they want us back? There are rea­sons to sug­gest they would. Even with the re­bate, our fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion is sig­nif­i­cant. Our mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity roles re­main im­por­tant.

We are still, thanks to quirks of his­tory, a per­ma­nent mem­ber of the UN se­cu­rity coun­cil. We are a key player in NATO. Our in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing is highly re­spected. Even in the midst of Brexit chaos, the gov­ern­ment achieved a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory over the Krem­lin by bring­ing the rest of the West along­side in its re­sponse to the Skri­pal case. And eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally, we pro­vide a counter-bal­ance to the coun­tries of the south.

Yet our with­drawal has al­ready been fac­tored in. The EU budget has been ad­justed. Although France and Ger­many re­main the hub, with or with­out Macron and Merkel, the ge­om­e­try of the union is con­stantly shift­ing. Pop­ulist gov­ern­ments in Italy and Hun­gary and be­yond pose a more press­ing threat to Euro­pean har­mony than sulk­ing from Bri­tain. As for se­cu­rity, mu­tual self­in­ter­est sug­gests that co­op­er­a­tion will con­tinue, no mat­ter how fraught re­la­tions might be­come.

The early Blair era is al­ready taught as his­tory in schools. It be­longs to a dif­fer­ent era, when Europe dared to hope that we had moved on from our Dad’s Army days. Over the last decade, we have re­treated back into the mar­gins.

For those at the heart of 21st cen­tury Bri­tain – peo­ple in­volved in sci­ence, or academia, or cul­ture or tech – the di­vorce is made all the more painful by the tone of our in­ter­locu­tors. Ev­ery speech or con­ver­sa­tion from the vis­it­ing del­e­ga­tion be­gins with a lament to “our Bri­tish friends”. The tone is in part pa­tro­n­is­ing, in part gen­uine and car­ing. Would they bring out the bunting if we ap­plied a hand­brake turn? Euro­pean chan­cel­leries would have us back, but it would be the wari­est wel­come. They would want re­as­sur­ing that we had fi­nally rec­on­ciled our­selves, long-term, as a na­tion to a life in the heart of Europe. And the chances of that hap­pen­ing? Think sec­ond ref­er­en­dum vic­tory and mul­ti­ply that by a fac­tor of hun­dreds.

Pho­tos: Getty Im­ages

FAD­ING AWAY: From the left, Tony Blair’s Cool Bri­tan­nia de­clines into the Iraq War, a vic­to­ri­ous Nigel Farage, con­flict in Ukraine and fi­nally get­ting a help­ing hand from Don­ald Trump

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