UK & EU — Seen from Asia

David Cameron’s speech could have been a lot worse, but five years of uncertainty are bad for everyone

David Cameron (Beta/AP)
David Cameron (Beta/AP)

So now we know: Europe will be roiled by internal turmoil for another five years. While Germany, France and others wrestle to build a stronger core Europe around the Eurozone, David Cameron’s British Conservatives, if elected in 2015, will try to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership in the whole EU club and then put that ‘new settlement’ to the British people in an ‘in or out’ referendum by the end of 2017.

World, you have been warned. Europe as an economic giant? Yes, still. Europe as a strong force in a new multipolarworld? Postponed to the Greek calends - and now to the British ones as well. Whether you are watching from India, China, Russia, the USA or Brazil, you can forget that prospect for the foreseeable future. In fact, most people in those countries already have.

But first, what of the speech itself? Well, it could have been a lot worse. As a pro-European who has argued that Britain should hold an ‘in or out’ referendum in the next parliament, once the shape of Eurozone-Europe and the results of any attempted renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership are known, I can hardly complain if the British prime minister plumps for exactly that. While much of the phrasing was patently crafted to please eurosceptics, some of his criticisms of today’s EU are also justified.

Above all, the peroration of the speech was as clear, eloquent and forceful an argument for Britain staying in the EU, on clear-sighted, hard-nosed Palmerstonian grounds of national interest, as you could hope to hear from a leader of today’s Conservative party. Those last minutes, between about 8.35 and 8.45 London time, confirmed me in a view that I have taken against nervous British pro-Europeans for some time: when it comes to the point, the British people will vote to stay in the EU.

Yet they also confirmed the futility of his entire strategy. For those basic arguments of national interest for Britain to stay in the EU will remain true however paltry the results of any formal renegotiation after 2015. In fact, since Europe is a permanent negotiation,Britain would get a better deal if it remained fully involved and visibly committed all the time.

If other EU member states agree on nothing else, they agree on this: Britain should not be given any major new exceptions from the rules of the whole club. Now they will concede even less. If EU politics were a game of bridge, Cameron has just effectively thrown away his strongest ace: the credible threat of Britain leaving.

It’s also bad for Europe. Some of the good reforms Cameron is preaching at continental Europeans are now even less likely to happen since, whatever he says, our partners all feel that he is batting for Britain, not for Europe. In a rare and revealing stumble by this otherwise accomplished speaker, when he was arguing for his preferred option of a new reform treaty for the whole of the EU, he said ‘but if there is no appetite for a new treaty for us [pause, stumble]…for us all’. Freudian slip or Thatcherite one: that’s what most continental Europeans think he subconsciously means.

And yet, even though it would have been better for Europe to carry on without this added diversion to the core problems of the whole project, a referendum would have come sooner or later anyway. With the stakes raised like this, it will be hard for other parties to refuse the British people a direct choice. As a nice Polish phrase has it: we have to swallow this frog.

Meanwhile, the world will yawn its way through five more years of euro shemozzle. And it will deal with Europe as it finds it: economic giant, political hydra-head.

Like reading Lolita in Tehran, watching Cameron in Mumbai has been a surreal experience. Here I am, surrounded by the afterlife of British colonialism at its most grandiloquent – the monumental Gateway to India, built in Bombay harbour to celebrate the visit of the King-Emperor George V in 1911, colonial-style tea rooms fluttering with now-Indian talk of ‘tiffin’ and ‘chaps’. And there, on the television screen, a century later, is a vaguely viceregal British prime minister who nonetheless feels it necessary to explain, to what was once the party of empire, why Britain really should not opt to be an offshore Switzerland, a Norway without the oil, or the Greater Cayman Islands.

And the Indians, those - at the top of the pile – who are now prosperous and sophisticated representatives of one of the 21st century’s great emerging powers: how do they view this distant political gymkhana? Mainly, not at all. Indian acquaintances confirm my impression that the speech did not make the news bulletins of the main Indian channels. Indians have their own politics to worry about, and their own problems: India’s poverty makes hard-hit Greece look like paradise. But beyond that, they view it with mixed feelings.

One hears of a liking for London as a place to live and do business; of admiration for British universities (if only the Cameron government’s misbegotten student visa squeeze does not prevent their children from studying there); of some attachment to British traditions of literature, good government and common law (an Indian shipping merchant tells he me makes contracts with Chinese partners under English law). But there is absolutely no echo of the neo-Tory idea that a strategic special relationship between Britain and India, Britain and the whole Commonwealth,could be any substitute for Britain’s place in Europe, and India’s relationship with Europe as a whole. India, like Britain, will pursue its own national interest, starting in its own neighbourhood. If Cameron doesn’t know that already, he will hear it again on his planned second official visit to India next month.

Ultimately, the point is this. History has dealt Britain an amazing hand. Though a shadow of its former imperial self, the country has unique ties to Europe, to the United States, to the rest of the English-speaking world, and to quite a few other places (for example, in Latin America) as well: spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. Who but an idiot would throw away one of his (or her) strongest suits? And we Brits are not idiots, are we? Are we?

timothygartonash.com

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he directs www.freespeechdebate.com, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name