Have we just witnessed a cynical attempt to induce an old ally to sacrifice itself for the benefit of the United States? Possibly: Foreign policy is not for the morally squeamish.
Look no further than Philip Gordon, the U.S.’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In January, Mr. Gordon hurled himself into Britain’s contentious debate over the EU with the observation that America viewed the U.K.’s continued participation in that wretched union as “essential and critical to the United States.” This did not play well with Blighty’s euroskeptic hordes, a crowd all too willing to suspect that Uncle Sam takes John Bull for granted. An indignant Nigel Farage, leader of the insurgent euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP), snarked that, as the U.K. had rejected the Americans’ suggestion that it might lend a hand in Vietnam, the U.K. would also “say no to them over the EU.”
Undeterred, Barack Obama waded into the controversy a week or so later, releasing some comments shortly before David Cameron was due to deliver a much-anticipated speech on Britain’s role in the EU. The timing was intended to stiffen the back of a prime minister under immense domestic political pressure from his euroskeptic critics. The president began softly enough, politely underscoring “America’s close alliance with the United Kingdom,” but then came to the point: The United States values “a strong U.K. in a strong European Union.” Following Cameron’s speech, that message was echoed by Joe Biden, never a man afraid to repeat the words of others, during the course of a visit to Europe earlier this month: “We believe the United Kingdom is stronger as a result of its membership [in the EU]. And we believe the EU is stronger with the U.K.’s involvement.”
On one level, that was not so far from what Cameron had ended up saying. In his speech, he called for a reformed, “leaner, less bureaucratic union . . . with the single market at its heart,” a union open for business with the rest of the world, a decentralized union that would return powers to its member states but that would have room within it for a smaller group of countries on a pathway to “much closer economic and political integration,” but no sin bin for those who did not. If that is a vision in any way connected with reality, the State Department ought to be able to relax.
Of course, it is not. Fears among the EU’s leadership (alluded to by Cameron in his speech) that a restructuring on the lines he proposed could lead to the union’s unraveling will mean that it will never take place. If Britain is to loosen its ties to Brussels, it will have to do so on its own. That would involve persuading all the other 26 EU countries to go along (since changes to the EU treaty require unanimity). That’s not going to happen either.
No matter, Cameron has guaranteed British voters a referendum once his implausible negotiations for an impossible deal have been concluded. It will, he explained, be “a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether.” So would that be something for the White House to worry about? Not really. The Conservative manifesto for the general election, due in 2015, will include a promise to hold a referendum. But here’s the catch. The Conservatives will almost surely not win that election, for any number of reasons that we don’t need to go into now.
Even in the astounding event of a Tory victory, what then? Doubtless there would be an elaborate pantomime of negotiation — there is still a large constituency within the EU (including, most importantly, Germany) that would like the Brits to stay in — and doubtless a few crumbs of concession would be tossed Cameron’s way. Indeed there were sections in his speech where the prime minister already seemed to be signaling his willingness to find a way to accept them. For older Britons, this brings back memories of the 1975 referendum that rubber-stamped a cosmetically “renegotiated” deal with the precursor to the EU. And a rerun of that would probably be what they would get.
Disregard the polls currently showing that a majority in the U.K. would opt for Brexit (yes, that’s the term). That’s just venting. Given their druthers, because of anxiety about what lies outside, reinforced by skillful scaremongering (and there’s been quite a bit of that lately), most Brits would prefer to remain within the EU, albeit one that is less intrusive. The nature of the EU — an “ever closer union” — means that that is not on offer. But presented with a prettily packaged excuse to avoid confronting that unpleasant reality, and battered by warnings from the great and the good of the supposedly hideous implications of quitting, the British electorate would almost certainly stick with the devil it knows.
So Cameron’s gambit is highly unlikely to get anywhere, let alone lead to Britain’s escape from the EU, and yet the Obama administration still seems oddly concerned. In part this may be a feint, aimed not at London but at Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, crafted to demonstrate to a bloc of some consequence that the Brits might be euroskeptic but their cousins across the pond most definitely are not.
And in part it may be caution. Cameron is right: “Democratic consent for the EU [within the U.K.] is now wafer thin.” If the Labour party were to shift in a more euroskeptic direction, the political equation would change dramatically. Despite electoral logic and some tentative maneuvering, that’s not likely for now. The party’s leader is firmly in the Brussels camp. But its supporters are rather less so. All things considered, the White House may have thought that spreading a little of what euroskeptic blogger Richard North has dubbed FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) over the consequences of a Brexit might be a sensible preemptive step.
More than that, the EU is in a tense, febrile state. The underlying structural failings of its monetary union, combined with a nutty determination to dig that hole still deeper, may well force the countries of the euro zone (and perhaps others) into a degree of integration that will, however much they might try to avoid it, necessitate amendments to the EU treaty. Those will be amendments to which the Brits will have to give their assent (unanimity, remember). At that moment, whatever the fate of Cameron and his referendum, the U.K.’s relationship with the EU will be up for discussion. As matters now stand, it is, to put it mildly, unlikely that the country will opt to join any inner core, but, by spreading a little FUD in advance (with more, unquestionably, to come), the U.S. is obviously trying to contribute to the creation of a climate of opinion within Britain that will prevent the U.K. from wandering too far from the heart of Brussels’s realm.
And as to why the administration should try to do this, well, that (if it is thinking straight) is where the cynical sacrifice of an old ally would come in. The EU is fundamentally anti-American. Designed as a counterweight to American power, it is a project that, lacking any genuine positive identity of its own, defines itself by what it is not. What it is not, its grandees like to emphasize, is America. Economically, the ideas of its founders were rooted in central planning at home, and, in dealings with the outside world, mercantilism. But British membership (and the example set by the success of Thatcherite reforms within the U.K.) has helped nudge the EU on a somewhat different (but not irreversible) course, more open to free markets and free trade and thus more to Washington’s liking (for instance, talks on a U.S.-EU free-trade deal are set to start in June). Similarly, Britain has acted as a brake on the construction of a common — and overarching — EU foreign policy that would, almost by definition, make the union an increasingly awkward partner for the U.S.
The problem is that the EU’s original suspicion of free enterprise has never disappeared, and hard times have given it fresh life. There are clear signs that Britain can only block so much for so long (the evolution of EU financial regulation is just one harbinger among many of trouble to come). The trudge toward a common foreign policy continues. Nevertheless, so long as the Brits stay relatively close to the center of the EU’s decision-making, there remains a decent chance that Brussels’s more damaging initiatives can be diluted, delayed, or derailed. Seen from an American viewpoint, there is thus a brutal logic to convincing the U.K. to hang in there, even if, from a British angle, it makes no sense at all.
But what if the White House is not looking at this question in the coldly Machiavellian way that Americans have a right to expect? One alternative interpretation of Obama’s effort to insert himself as a counselor into Britain’s unhappy European marriage is that his administration is still in thrall to the Cold War calculation that regarded (Western) European unity as a strategic good in its own right, an obsolete notion kept alive today by intellectual laziness in Washington and, somewhat more legitimately, by an appreciation of the genuinely useful role played by the EU in the transformation of the post-Communist part of the continent. It’s a mindset that has led successive White Houses — Republican and Democratic — to view the EU’s progress toward that ever closer union with insouciance, or even, sometimes, enthusiasm. A more tightly unified EU, gushed Condoleezza Rice back in 2005, would be a “positive force.” Maybe the Obama administration has simply succumbed to this delusion, and cannot grasp why Britain would not wish to sign up for the ride.
Then again, there could be a yet more troubling explanation. Does Obama look across the Atlantic to Brussels and rather like what he sees, an entity developing in a supranational, “progressive,” environmentally correct, corporatist, and technocratic direction that is not so far removed from his own agenda for this country? If he does — and it’s not so far-fetched an idea — he won’t have much sympathy for a bunch of what he doubtless sees as “bitter” Brits clinging to what’s left of their independence.
But whatever the reasons Messrs. Obama, Biden, and Gordon had for saying what they did, from the British perspective it is clear what David Cameron’s response should be. He should pay absolutely no attention.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor to National Review Online.