Every national leader is right to defend his constituents, but the Prime Minister must begin to demonstrate a long-term vision for the UK’s role in Europe that resists myopic domestic pressures, writes Ian Hansen.
Ian Hansen is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council. He has worked and lived in Poland, Georgia, and Ukraine.
In the 17th century, Englishman John Donne wrote that “no man is an island” suggesting humanity cannot thrive when isolated. Unfortunately, one of Donne’s current countrymen fails to appreciate this concept.
As the European Council Summit again confirmed, and with the September NATO Summit looming, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s increasingly shortsighted leadership risks inhibiting European accord by isolating the UK from Europe.
Cameron seems to understand a strong transatlantic partnership needs increased economic cooperation and a credible NATO if the UK is to remain relevant. Yet, his recent actions fail to demonstrate the pragmatism needed to maintain necessary consensus between the UK and Europe. It is this consensus that is also needed to ensure a credible NATO and increased economic cooperation.
Consider the poignant complaints of Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski. Unaware he was being recorded, Sikorski colorfully argued Cameron took the wrong strategy by not attacking the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) until just a month before European elections. UKIP proceeded to win the most seats in the elections and its simplistic narrative of “Europe is bad” went unchallenged. This matters because Britain’s primary-and likely boisterous-message to fellow Europeans in the European Parliament now becomes that the UK should not even be part of the EU.
Following the elections, the Tories did not highlight that UKIP fared poorly in prosperous cities and succeeded in declining industrial towns. Instead, it responded with a rumored plan aimed at appeasing UKIP’s biggest supporters before the 2017 referendum. The centerpiece of this plan is a cap on the number of migrants coming from poorer European Union countries via a wealth test.
This would ruin the EU’s free movement of persons principle and messily establish a “two rings of Europe” model. Though it may win votes in the short-term, it also goes in the face of fruitful economics. Throughout the last 10 years immigrants entering Britain have not been a drain on social resources or source of crime but have helped grow the economy. Xenophobia is a poor rationale against economic sensibility, and the unwillingness to confront such fears demonstrates Cameron’s lack of political will and has also lost him friendsin Europe.
Cameron also failed to demonstrate pragmatism and when he lost political capital in Brussels following his failed effort to thwart the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker for European Commission President. Cameron was the only leader to oppose Juncker for his federalist tendencies, but Cameron’s unorthodox decision to force a vote publicly isolated him with the less than reputable Hungarian President Viktor Orban. Cameron has since stated he can “do business” with the Luxembourger, though it is not beyond anyone’s imagination that Juncker may punish Cameron for his public and self-indulgent opposition.
Juncker may do this by withholding a desired economic commissioner post from the UK at the July 16 European Council summit. This is all the more likely by Cameron’s choice of the obscure Jonathan Hill for EU Commissioner with the ramifications being an ever-diminished British voice in Brussels. This could make the EU more protectionist in nature and also cause the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to stall. Overall, the entire incident shows Cameron’s tendency to overestimate his hand, inability to understand Brussels’ rules, and willingness to gain domestic capital at the expense of more substantial goals.
Finally, Cameron has hurt the consensus for Western actions related to Ukraine by letting the interests of London preclude more meaningful action against Russia. Notable examples include the unwillingness to confront anyone seeking to do business in “Londongrad” and allowing British champions like BP to investmore in companies closely connected to the Kremlin even as the situation deteriorates. Perhaps most worrisome are the accusations of high-level Tories receiving donations from disreputable Russians and Ukrainians. Altogether, one can question Cameron’s moral authority to speak to and deal with matters affecting Europe’s east if he truly is captive to the City’s influence.
That said, David Cameron is capable of being a strong reasonable voice in Europe. To become so, he must be more pragmatic and avoid advancing a hastily designed “two ring” Europe. He must focus on explaining the legitimate advantages of the EU to Britons before his referendum in 2017. He also must work to enhance relations with European colleagues to ensure legitimate British concerns are taken seriously. A renegotiated relationship with the EU may still be possible, but such conversations should not be premised upon short-term interests with a background threat of a “Brexit.”
Both the July 16 summit and the September NATO summit provide ample opportunities to demonstrate the UK’s commitment to a robust Europe. Ideally, David Cameron can use both opportunities to advance the UK’s future by recognizing its place within the transatlantic partnership, and Europe as well. After all, however much Britain is an island, it remains a European island.
Every national leader is right to defend his constituents, but the Prime Minister must begin to demonstrate a long-term vision for the UK’s role in Europe that resists myopic domestic pressures. If he does that, he will reach out beyond the traditional Tory base.