• Mark Mardell

A European Nation Adrift

Updated: Mar 28, 2021

The Government’s new foreign policy paper is both martial and maritime, drenched in salt spray as we choose the open sea over Europe.

So, it is fitting that in one important regard it adopts a famous tactic of our most celebrated naval hero, Lord Nelson. It sticks the telescope firmly to its eye patch and in effect declares “"I have a right to be blind sometimes.”

Away from the headline grabbing increase in nukes and the tilt to the Indo Pacific, which I’ve already written about here, the UK’s new integrated foreign policy has one glaring omission.

“Global Britain” is a recalibration in the light of Brexit, because of Brexit, by a Government which is passionate about the benefits of Brexit, so it would be daft to expect it to gush with warm words about the European Union.

But just as Nelson refused to see a signal he disliked, the British Government is all but refusing to acknowledge the existence of an organisation that it loathes.

The document goes out of its way to describe the UK as a “European country” albeit one with “global ambitions”. Under this heading there’s a description of our most important relationships, which caught my eye for what it doesn’t say.

The USA – ‘our most important strategic ally and partner’ - gets the first and longest hat tip. The next country to be mentioned is our fellow nuclear power, and former imperial rival, France. The accent is, as throughout the document, on the military relationship – we have a ‘deep and longstanding security and defence relationship” with the French. Then a little dig : managing cross channel trade constructively is essential if that relationship is to ‘remain positive’.

Next the spotlight and applause moves on to Germany, an “essential ally” and then Ireland with which we have ‘a strong bilateral partnership”. There are honourable mentions for Italy (“particularly close partnership”) and Poland (“vital partner”).

Hurriedly hustled on to stage together are Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, those inside and outside the EU mingling together over “a commitment to transatlanticism”.

Strong, direct relations with friendly nearby countries is plain common sense. The mistake is to think that you can go round to the back door and do deals with them while the European Union isn’t looking. Pro Europeans can be rather po faced about even making the attempt. There’s nothing wrong with trying it on. It just rarely works. And that’s been proved time and time again.

Cameron tried it, and failed, May tried it and failed, and it was catastrophic for both of them. The constant attempt is based on a deep misunderstanding: a faith that deep down every other member of the EU must share their frustration with and contempt for the whole edifice. A fundamental belief that every other country finds the whole thing a bit of a nuisance and must surely believe that bilateralism is the real way to get business done.

This is particularly faulty logic when it comes to Germany. The European project was originally about containing German power and it is now deeply ingrained in that country’s diplomacy and psyche that it mainly acts through and with the European Union.

The worst of this is not that it treats the EU as an enemy, but that it treats it as our enemies – sorry, strategic rivals - treat it. Russia and China deal with the EU when they must, but strain ever muscle to parlay with Europe country by country. This is partly because it gives them more clout and partly because it serves to undermine the whole enterprise.

Some Brexit backers are merely glad we are out. Others think the whole supra national, multi national enterprise is a monstrosity which should and will collapse under the weight of its unnatural design and offences against the spirit of Westphalia.

It is not clear what the Government as a whole wish for the future of Europe but it is important for the whole notion of the Western alliance. You really don’t want to be adrift on the high seas with no anchor.

‘Global Britain’ does make passing reference to the EU’s ‘important role’ and a half promise to “find new ways of working with it on shared challenges”.

This circles the hole in the strategy – suggesting the UK Government would rather the EU would just fade into the background. It may do eventually, but not for a while. That is why there needs to be a strategy towards it.

Maybe it is far too soon, maybe this sort of paper is not the place for it. But sooner or later the burnt and shattered bridges will have to be rebuilt.

I fear it will be very much later, and it is heading in a very bad direction. If the European policy of this document skirts around the conundrum, that is nothing compared to the increasingly toxic reality. Forget bridge building - both sides are currently standing on the opposite banks of the river hurling bricks, having stomped further holes in what was left of the bridge.

The European Union has been petty and childish over vaccines and I can’t help feeling the weird mistrust of the AstraZeneca vaccine on the continent reflects a new lack of trust in Britain’s word. The relationship has moved into a new stage of vindictive hostility. It’s dangerous. On the British side it appears deliberate rather than panicky.

Lord Frost’s appointment to the cabinet as Euro supremo was a deliberate red rag to the very bull he has been tweaking and taunting for months. Although his job has been described as forging a new relationship with the EU he seems to have been appointed with the mission of winding them up good and proper.

Every recent step looks deliberately designed with the intention of forcing the relationship to a new low. One can only assume this is for domestic political advantage – playing hard ball can work sometimes but it is difficult to see how it helps in future negotiations. And there are plenty in the pipeline. There’s an important treaty to be negotiated over the future of Gibraltar, there’s that ‘border in the Irish Sea’ to sort and whole the question of how the City of London is treated is still up in the air. That’s just for starters.

If “Global Britain” is in part about reaffirming and strengthening the Western Alliance this is a funny way to go about it. The post Brexit policy is designed to look bold and buccaneering, the word made flesh, an echo of Churchill’s angry exchange with De Gaulle, when he told the leader of the Free French that if it came to it, England would always choose the open sea over Europe. The two big beasts of national sovereignty made up that evening over a good dinner and fine wine.

Their lesser successors will take much longer to come even to a grudging, working relationship even as Europe teeters on the brink of an uncertain future. That should worry us all.

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