Thursday, 20 January 2011

Is David Cameron forming an Anti-European Union?

Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for a "Mediterranean Union" may be floundering, but at the other end of Europe British Prime Minister David Cameron is just getting started with plans to form a 'Northern European Union.'

The leaders of Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are all meeting in London today to discuss the potential for a grouping which Cameron is calling an "alliance of common interests". He wants to boost trade between the UK and the Nordic and Baltic countries, but also to increase the flow of ideas. These include ideas on technology and economic and social policy, areas in which Northern Europe has similarities and expertise that are not necessarily shared by many countries in other parts of Europe.

Cameron insinuated as much yesterday when he said a northern grouping could become an "avant garde" for economic growth in Europe. And of course, Northern European countries have deep historical ties as most were ruled by Denmark at one time or another. And before the EU came along the Nordics had their own attempted intergovernmental union, the Nordic Council.

But the fact that this is also a gathering of traditionally eurosceptic nations is leading many to question whether Cameron is in fact trying to form an alliance of traditionally eurosceptic nations looking for an alternative to European federalism. No EU officials were invited to the summit. Seven out of the nine countries gathered in London today do not use the euro. Norway and Iceland are not EU members (though they do follow EU regulations as part of the European Economic Area). The trifecta of Britain, Sweden and Denmark are usually seen as the three member states who are the most hostile to European integration.

It's not just Vikings and Euroscepticism that put the three countries on the same wavelength, particularly at the moment. All three are now under conservative governments. Cameron and Swedish centre-right prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt – who are both relatively young for their positions in their 40's – seem to have become fast friends. Cameron has repeatedly held up Reinfeldt's Sweden as an example for what the UK could accomplish, both in economic and social policy. Since Reinfeldt was elected into office in 2006, he has pursued an ambitious centre-right policy with innovative new solutions. The Swedish government has also been able to avoid the worst of the economic crisis. Over the past few years the country has been an outlier in Europe as it enjoyed record growth, healthy public finances, booming exports and a high value in its currency the krona, with productivity levels higher than in the United States. Experts have warned that this kind of isolated growth is not sustainable, but Cameron has held it out as an example of the right path forward for Britain.

Cameron's government has insisted that today's meeting is not about forming a united block against Brussels but rather sharing the ideas that the countries have in common. But it has been undeniably true that Cameron has been working hard to coble together his Northern European counterparts into a united block in European Council meetings in Brussels. This was on display in November's negotiations over the EU budget. Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Holland joined together to stonewall any negotiations with the European Parliament over their demand for an EU tax. In the end they were successful – the European Parliament gave in and agreed to the 2011 budget without having their demands for an EU tax or more say over the budgeting process met. This outcome may not have been possible without the unified opposition of Cameron's 'Northern bloc'

Given that these countries share not only similar cultures but also similar political outlooks, it's probably only natural for them to form a negotiating bloc in council discussions similar to the ones formed between Germany and France or between the Southern European countries. But with today's meeting, is Cameron trying to go one step further into forming some kind of more cohesive permanent alliance among these states, one that would incorporate non-EU neighbours? That remains to be seen.

One question that remains unanswered is why the Baltic states have been invited to today's meeting. The former soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania only joined the EU in 2004 and are not known for any sort of virulent euroscepticism as exists in their former colonial masters Sweden and Denmark. And being fairly poor countries in transition to market economies, they share little of the technological, economic and social advancements that are shared by the UK and the Nordics.

On the other hand Finland, though a Nordic country, is actually traditionally fairly pro-EU. And as long as the reach of this alliance seems to be stretching the idea of 'nordic' into the Baltic states, why not invite Holland – which is occasionally referred to as a Nordic state itself. Cameron has formed such close alliances with the country's current eurosceptic centre-right government it would make sense for them to also be a part of this grouping. Also notable in its absence in Ireland - which may have been out of place there given its traditionally pro-European stance and an obvious resistance to joining any club being formed by the UK.

In truth, the similarities that exist between the Northern European states may be over exaggerated, as is often the case for Southern Europe. Yes the UK and the Nordics are both centres for technological innovation and liberal economic thought, but their social models are different in many ways. Sweden and Denmark are social welfare states with 50% tax rates, among the highest in the world. The UK is a hybrid social-liberal country that combines some social elements of continental Europe with many of the free-market principles of America. The UK has a tax rate half the amount of the Nordic countries. In terms of social welfare policy, Nordic conservatives are closer to New Labour than they are to the Tories.

This could cause complications if the countries were to get serious about more involved cooperation down the road.


Daniel said...

Dear Mr Gulf Stream Blues,

This is an interesting read. However, I do not agree with you. Iceland is on its way of joining the EU. Estonia eagerly joined the euro. So they can't be anti-EU leaders.

One point which I do believe are in common for all those leaders - particularly the EU ones: they have a common point of view on the EU budget: "in times of austerity it is not desirable for the EU to demand an increase in its budget," whether that idea comes from the European parliamentarians or the European Commission.

Therefore I do not believe these people are forming an anti-EU alliance, rather a club of people with a common interest in a modest EU budget. And yes, some in the EP call these people anti-Europeans.

Vote4Diarmuid said...

Also Ireland is part of the Nordic EU battle group so is already involved with the region and would I imagine have been eager to attend such an event.

itinerantlondoner said...

Even though the Baltics aren't traditionally part of the Nordics, there are very close relations between the blocs, partly driven by the very close linguisitic relationship between Estonia & Finland, but partly due to proximity - one example is the fact that the 3 Baltic states are all members of the Nordic Investment Bank alongside the 5 Nordics, and another is the fact that the Nordic Council operates offices in each of the 3 Baltic capitals, and Baltic-Nordic cooperation has long been pushed by Nordic countries, so it may have been at their suggestion that the Baltics were included on the invite? And I suppose it could work for Cameron to have them onside, as it just adds more weight to his new 'bloc' (if it comes to that)

Kallisti said...

(Sorry, I'm reading up after being out of the country)
As always, very interesting read. And as you close with, there are probably not so much of an anti-EU-thing with the group as an actual way of cooperation between countries currently having some of the same ideas.

And I must object to your characterisation that most of the areas were ruled by Denmark... Parts of Britain, Norway intermittently and Iceland have been Danish. Norway, Finland and most of the Baltics have been parts of Sweden. Just to make things clear :)

Additionally the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers are very much active and parallel to anything EU. As mentioned in other comments the Nordic cooperation is actively engaging the Baltic countries. The Nordic Council(s) and the Nordic passport union (similar to the later Schengen) are from the same era as the Coal and Steel Union, the beginning of the fifties.

Regarding the EU, you are correct in that there are some similarities, although I don't think any of the other countries have such a misinformed and vicious EU-debate as UK. But both Sweden and the UK are strong supporters of Turkey, which would probably weaken the integration tremendously, but perhaps not for the same reasons.

Dave Keating said...

Well actually all of Norway was part of Denmark from 1536–1814!

All of Southern Sweden was part of Denmark, and considered Danish, from the Viking period until the 17th century

Denmark ruled Estonia during the Baltic Empire period

And under the Union of Kalmar the Danish kings and queens ruled over Finland

So the only parts the Danish never ruled were Lithuania and Latvia!

Kallisti said...

Aha! :)

As you point out, present day Norway, Iceland, Greenland, parts of present day Sweden and parts of the Baltics has been under Danish rule.

Also present day Norway (including present day Iceland and Greenland), Finland, parts of present day Denmark (like Bornholm, most of the Baltics, parts of present day Russia, Poland, Germany and was at one point the third largest empire in Europe, after Russia and Spain.

However the key point is if Sweden was ever Danish and consequently under Danelaw. Really, that is the key point of your blog entry :) and the answer is - no. Kalmar Union was a personal union, where Sweden, Norway and Denmark separately committed to elect the same kings, which they only did intermittently, during a period of 130 years. It ended with the king Gustav Vasa elected to the throne of Sweden instituting a hereditary line of succession. During the period all three countries had there own "prime ministers", governments, taxation and, most relevant here, their own laws. So Danelaw was never implemented in the then country of Sweden (including Finland and other dependencies)! :)