London view: Aunt Sally, Eurospoiler or saviour?

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Blogging about last week’s ECFR Council Meeting in Warsaw, Gideon Rachman noted that he “was surprised by how much anger there was directed at Britain”. Listening to the 8am news on Radio Four, it’s easy to understand why.

The bulletin contrasted speeches by David Cameron (“We should look sceptically at grand plans and utopian visions… An opportunity to begin to refashion the EU so it better serves this nation’s interests”) and Angela Merkel (“It is now the task of our generation to complete the economic and currency union in Europe and create, step by step, a political union”). There, in a nutshell, was British opportunism and Euroscepticism, contrasted with the steady, wise words of someone who was on the inside of the crisis, looking for the (inevitable) way out.

Many at ECFR’s Council Meeting certainly saw Britain as the arch Eurospoiler, merrily pushing a stick through the spokes of the EU bicycle. It secured opt-outs, obstructed pushes towards deeper integration, and had the temerity to demand presence and influence in matters where it was an explicit refusenik (the Eurozone meetings). Britain was the popular Aunt Sally at the meeting*. In this, it was just like old times: just as ‘true Europeans’ used to resent Britain for its lack of commitment to and obstruction of the cause, now Britain was being pilloried for standing outside the tent, failing to contribute meaningfully to a solution to the crisis, and having the temerity to offer advice.

This is all familiar stuff, but I believe that it is probably off target. Britain will always raise some European hackles, but rather than just acting as a Eurospoiler and Aunt Sally, perhaps it can be seen as part of Europe’s solution. Take this further part of Cameron’s speech:

“Now is the chance to ask: what kind of Europe do we actually want? For me, the answer is clear. One that is outward-looking – with its eyes to the world not gazing inwards. One with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc – whose institutions help by connecting and strengthening its members to thrive in a vibrant world, rather than holding them back. One that understands and values national identity and sees the diversity of Europe’s nations as source of strength.”

Ask yourself this: If you were Germany, looking for a globally competitive Europe that is not purely a politically-constructed beast, that embraces a flexible and broad common market (beyond the EU17) and that looks towards growth as the route towards European and German relevance in the world of 2050, how would you weigh up the competing visions of France and Britain?

* Aunt Sallys were a feature of British fairgrounds, where members of the public threw stones at a figurine of an old woman. It is now understood to mean a metaphorical target for criticism.

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