All European countries are prisoners of their past – none more so than the United Kingdom (UK). It is now more than half a century since United States (US) Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously remarked that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’. Yet British elites still find it hard to reconcile themselves to the modern world – a world in which British power and British influence are in secular decline.
To the extent that this reality cannot be ignored, the reaction is too often to take refuge in fantasy (the Europhobes’ trope about becoming a ‘northern Singapore’), or a sulky emulation of Greta Garbo’s renunciation of the world: ‘I want to be alone’. Too few British leaders have the courage to urge the only rational response to our diminishing national ability to shape the world around us – closer cooperation with European partners. For cooperation – with all the commitments, compromises and constraints it inevitably entails – feels deeply unBritish. We, after all, are a Great Power, and great powers should be able to plough their own furrow.
So even at the point when Britain was most supportive of the European ‘defence project’, after the St. Malo initiative with France in 1998, the British idea was more to lead than to participate. If various continentals got together and compensated for individual weakness by working together, then that was fine. But the UK itself would of course have no need to resort to such shifts.
This British instinct – to prescribe defence cooperation for others whilst quietly abstaining – was of course reinforced by the initial American suspicion of European defence initiatives. London was deeply anxious not to incur Washington’s displeasure; American approbation was, and for many in the British defence establishment still remains, a vital prop to tottering British self-esteem. (This craving to look good in US eyes was a big part of what led to the British humiliations in Iraq and Afghanistan.) So, back in the late 1990s, the British promised Washington that they would control European Union (EU) defence developments, to ensure the continuing primacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The remnants of this policy can be seen in the continuing British veto, in isolation and in defiance of all logic and experience, of a proper EU headquarters.
All these British reservations about European defence have more recently been compounded by the rising toxicity of the ‘E-word’ in domestic politics. In the lead-up to this May’s general election, neither of the two main UK political parties (Conservatives and Labour) will do anything, however sensible, which could open them to the charge of pro-Europeanism. If the Conservatives win, this paralysis will continue at least until the referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU which they have promised. But if the pundits are right the election will deliver neither a clear winner nor a stable government – which will have the same effect.
One day, it is not unreasonable to hope that Britain will again have national leader who is prepared to argue that European cooperation, far from violating national sovereignty (the power to control our own destinies), is in fact the only way to protect it. And further to argue that for Britain to take a leading role in European defence cooperation is a winning policy from every possible perspective (including, for example, the transatlantic relationship). But European partners should not hold their breaths. The British are trapped in a crisis of post-imperial national identity, and show no signs of emerging any time soon.
Vol. 7, No. 19 (2015)
The CSDP: National Perspectives series, Article 21 (United Kingdom No. 4).
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