Much of the debate around Europe’s global strategy ahead of the December European Union Summit, might appear to those of us in the UK to be missing the point. Have those self- absorbed diplomats in Brussels failed to notice that the UK has always been wary about more common foreign policy, and that the discussion here is about whether we want to continue as members of the European Union club at all? And, surely, if the UK is not part of the project, European power looks very different: one less seat at the UN Security Council; the loss of one of the EU’s few powers who still retain military capacity capable of decisive interventions; and the loss of the UK’s huge diplomatic network, and historical, trade and linguistic ties across the world. Not to mention the fallout which the EU would be dealing with on the global stage if the UK decides to go it alone in 2017 – international partners would rightly fear that this could be the first step in a major unravelling.
So why have a discussion on Europe’s global strategy this year? Why not wait until some of the question marks on the horizon have been addressed? Until we know whether the European Parliament elections of 2014 indeed turn out to be dominated by the populist narrative that liberal pro-Europeans are fearing? Until the guessing game over who gets what role in the new European Commission is over? Although after the highly lauded interim deal on Iran this month, and the Kosovo- Serbia deal earlier this year, foreign policy high representative Catherine Ashton may be going out on a high, whoever her successor is, her moving on will automatically change the EU’s foreign policy dynamics. And a number of referendums – notably on Scotland’s relationship with the UK, and later, likely on UK membership of the EU could completely change the face of Europe.
The short answer as to why now, is that a union of 28 states will never be static, and so there will never be an unequivocally good moment to consider our place in the world. The long answer is that unfortunately this discussion can’t be put off any longer. As a new ECFR brief published this week shows, Europe is losing power at an alarming rate. European soft power has lost its sheen amid popular uprisings from the Arab world, to Russia to Brazil which have embraced the idea of liberation from western rules and practices. The snub this week by the Ukraine (and earlier this autumn, Armenia) of the EU offer of closer co-operation under the Eastern Partnership in favour of strong economic ties with Russia was another indicator of this trend. Meanwhile longer-term processes including Russia’s rearmament and the US pivot to Asia, and a general fatigue after decades of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan with liberal interventionism, have raised doubts about some of the central tenets of European security. Closer to home, the euro crisis has shaken the bloc’s confidence profoundly, revealing deep new internal divisions between creditor countries and debtor countries over what economic objectives they want Europe’s foreign policy to achieve.
So why would the UK continue to throw in its lot with what seems to be a sinking ship? The first reason is that these are common challenges which confront us, challenges which affect the UK just as profoundly as its European neighbours, and challenges that we cannot handle alone. Aside from major geostrategic shifts, the world is changing in other ways – we are entering a digital age with many new opportunities but also many unknowns, people are moving into and across Europe on a large scale and all states are affected, and the major challenges of demography, and supporting aging populations face us all.
Secondly, it is logical that in a post financial crisis Europe, we are all cutting defence and development budgets, and we would benefit from doing this in a collective way. If Europe as a whole has an interest in working out how to use its more limited capabilities in a world where we can no longer expect to free ride on US military power in a NATO context, now that they plan to lead from behind, within the EU, the UK, France and other states with significant ‘hard power’ have an interest in ensuring that their capacities are not simply taken for granted within a European context. The way to ensure this is to be at the centre of the discussion.
And finally the ship isn’t necessarily sinking. Though the world is undoubtedly changing around us, other powers – notably China, on demography, security, and balancing its economy, are also facing challenges big too. Europe needs to square up to the new realities of the global environment together, but Europe’s collective resource can still stand us in good stead if deployed in a strategic way. Despite the appearance of December’s discussion on Europe’s security strategy being just another EU summit, it is not a side show, rather it goes to the very core of what the UK debate on its relationship with Europe should be about: what role can Europe play on the global stage, and what does the UK bring to, and take from the table? This debate is a worthwhile exercise and one that the UK can and should shape – indeed EU partners are keen for us to – and we will only benefit from it if we do.
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