UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband delivered a stunningly pro-European speech yesterday, laying out a plea for the UK to stop being “lost in hubris, nostalgia or xenophobia” and instead become a leader within the EU.
It was probably the most pro-Europe speech from a British politician in two decades, and was a dramatic departure from New Labour’s characteristic avoidance of the Europe issue. It was an almost shockingly honest levelling with the British public – thee hallmark of a politician on the way out (He’s probably already accepted the fact that Labour will lose the UK general election next year). Today the British press was speculating over whether the speech was an audition for the newly created position of EU Foreign Minister, for which Miliband’s name has been circulating as an idea should Tony Blair not be nominated as the new President of the European Council.
Miliband made a clear case for why it is in the UK’s national interest to be part of a strong EU. It is a given that the 21st century will be dominated by two superpowers: China and the United States. Miliband stressed that the UK would be lost and forgotten in this new world if it tried to go it alone, but a strong EU would be an important, equal competitor/partner with these two. Speaking in London, he said:
“The choice for Europe is simple. Get our act together and make the EU a leader on the world stage, or become spectators in a G2 world shaped by the US and China. I think the choice for the UK is also simply stated: we can lead a strong European foreign policy or – lost in hubris, nostalgia or xenophobia – watch our influence in the world wane.”
There was no talk of “red lines” or the ‘us-versus-them’ rhetoric that has dominated the Europe discussion in the UK. There was also no glorification of the largely imaginary “special relationship” between the UK and US as an alternative to European integration, in fact there was an acknowledgement that the current US administration would prefer the UK to be more cooperative with its EU partners.
Miliband also called out the Tories on the false promise they have been offering the British public - that it is possible for the UK to ‘go it alone’ without the EU and still be prosperous. Miliband implied that Tory leader David Cameron knows full well that a British ‘divorce’ from the EU is not only unwise, it is also realistically impossible.
"The truth is that there is a deception here at the heart of [the Conservative’s] policy – a deception of the country that you can hate Europe as it exists today and remain central to European policy making,"
A Tough Sell
Some of the British press reaction today to Miliband’s speech has been hostile. It is, after all, a tough pill for the Brits to swallow. I don’t begrudge the British for being resistant to the idea of giving up some national sovereignty. It’s natural for any area or group to want to be completely independent – especially since the advent of the nation state in the 19th century. The question is whether complete independence is feasible or productive. In theory, I would love the idea of having an independent New England, my home region in the US. I don’t feel much of an affinity with vast swathes of America, especially the South, and I instinctively like the idea of New England not having to be linked with them, instead being allowed to set up its own national laws. But I also recognize that there are practical benefits to being part of a large union, and that New England would not be a very relevant or wealthy power all by itself.
What the British public don’t seem to realise is that this isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. It’s not an option for Britain to maintain its current standing in the world alone – it currently punches too far above its weight now as a result of being a former great power, but it will lose its relevance (including the inevitable loss of its seat on the UN Security Council) in a century dominated by the US and China. At the same time, relying on the so-called “special relationship” (a term I’ve never heard used in the US) is no longer an option either. Barack Obama has signalled that the US no longer sees the UK as a significant partner separate from Europe, and he would actually prefer that the UK work fully as part of the EU and stop obsessing over its relationship with the US.
And as The Independent’s Mary Dejevsky notes today, the “special relationship” was always a one-way ‘vassal state’ arrangement, and it no longer makes sense for either party in the 21st century. “Identifying our national interests so closely with those of the United States placed us in the demeaning position of having to change our foreign policy whenever the US elected a new administration, even though our own government was the same,” she writes.
If the UK wants to be a relevant, important country going forward it has only one option – to be a big player in a cohesive, strong EU. As foreign secretary, David Miliband understands this. Yet he has been the only Foreign Secretary in living memory with the courage to say it.
Of course Miliband’s words would be more encouraging were he not about to be ousted from power by British voters next year. If polling data is to believe the Brits will vote in a new government that is the most Eurosceptic of any since the UK joined the EU. As Dejevsky notes, Cameron is swimming against the tide of history, his only European allies on the margins.
Still, there is reason to believe that Cameron’s anti-Europe rhetoric is only a show, a cheap populist pantomime in order to win votes before settling into a more real politik stance once he gets into office. Who knows, the future could follow the old ‘Only Nixon could go to China’ rule and Cameron could end up being far more cooperative with Europe than Labour was. I attended a policy talk in Brussels back in March where economist Simon Titley was actually predicting that it would be the Tories who will introduce the euro in the UK.
Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on the continent. The fact is nobody knows what Cameron will do in regards to Europe, but if his actions match his campaigning rhetoric then the UK is in trouble. New Labour may not have been very courageous or honest with its Europe stance so far, but as the saying goes, perhaps its better the devil you know.