What’s best for both sides? Try a dual-core Europe

The relationship between Britain and its EU partners has reached breaking point. Both must abandon their clichés

Timothy Garton Ash Source:

And both are wrong. If there were more political imagination on both sides of the Channel, we would work towards a Europe that has not one hard core but at least two.Germany, France and other Eurozone countries have to deepen their monetary union, with a banking union and elements of a fiscal and consequently political union. For the foreseeable future, Britain will not be part of it. It does not follow that the Eurozone must be the hard core of everything the EU does. Why should it be?

The hard core in which Britain should keep a leading role is the EU’s foreign and security policy. Here, Germany rather than Britain is the awkward customer. Over the last twenty years, Germany has built its own bilateral energy relationship with Russia and its own trade and investment-driven special relationship with China. Last year, Germany sided with China and Russia in refusing to endorse UN backing for the French and British -led intervention in Libya. Most recently, Berlin vetoed the merger of EADS and BAE, which would have given Europe a global aerospace giant. Who were the bad Europeans there?

Because of its historical hang-ups and domestic interests, Germany is incapable of giving a bold lead in the external power projection that the EU needs if it is to defend our shared interests and values in a world of emerging giants such as China. Because of its historical hang-ups and domestic interests, Britain is not prepared to join in the emerging, German-led monetary and economic union.

OK, why not have a division of labour? Why not let Britain take a leading role in a hard core for foreign and security policy, while Germany leads in the economic and monetary one? France would, of course, continue to play a very important part in both. Countries like Poland hope in time to do the same.

Yes, this would be complicated; but organisational complexity is not the real obstacle to such a dual-core Europe. Rather, it is the lack of political imagination and will. This is most spectacularly apparent in Britain. British prime minister David Cameron has got himself into a corner where he cannot be seen to favour ‘more Europe’ in anything at all. Whatever his personal convictions, so terrified is he of his own eurosceptic conservative party backbenchers, and of the rising vote for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), that the symbolic politics of saying ‘not a penny or an inch more!’ trump any pragmatic calculations of national interest.

If the actual sum of money in the EU budget were really the issue, we’d have a deal. Relative to overall expenditure, the difference between London’s and Berlin’s target figures is small. But such sums can be made to sound enormous, and Cameron to look weak, on the front page of the mass-circulation Daily Mail. Politically, that appearance is the reality.

Britain may be off on a planet of its own, but some leading continental politicians don’t help either. They remain wedded to an out-dated vision of a Europe of ‘concentric circles’, with France and Germany at the magnetic core of the innermost circle. Yes, they acknowledge that we may have a ‘multi-speed’ Europe – with an ‘avant-garde’ of France, Germany, Belgium and others going faster, Spain, Sweden and Poland somewhat slower, Britain bringing up the rear. The somewhat condescending implication is: ‘you’ll all get there in the end’. But this ‘multi-speed’ metaphor completely misses the reality, and the danger, of what is happening. We already have a multi-group, multi-tier Europe and it is on the brink of becoming a multi-directional one. When the component parts of any political community start travelling in different directions, that community is no longer integrating – it is disintegrating.

At the moment, Britain appears to most of its European partners like the middle-aged businessman in a New Yorker cartoon, standing on a ledge outside his office window, eighteen floors up. A few of our European friends (in the Facebook sense of that word) are saying ‘Go on, jump. Get on with it!’ But most of them are urging us not to. At the moment, Britain appears to most of its European partners like the middle-aged businessman in a New Yorker cartoon, standing on a ledge outside his office window, eighteen floors up. A few of our European friends (in the Facebook sense of that word) are saying ‘Go on, jump. Get on with it!’ But most of them are urging us not to. Earlier this year, in Siena, I heard the Italian president, Giorgo Napolitano, an 87-year old former communist, passionately call on Britain not to detach itself from Europe. That same evening, the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, a still youthfulanti-communist, was delivering an almost identical message to an audience at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford. From left and right, east and west, young and old, the cry goes up: ‘Don’t do it!’

This message from Britain’s concerned co-workers at the office window would, however, be more persuasive if they at least allowed for the possibility that the company might in future do things somewhat differently. My idea of a dual-core Europe is one way of imagining that.

Let me be clear: there’s fat chance of this prime minister and Conservative party being more positive about any aspect of Europe until after the next election. Then it will take an ‘in or out’ referendum to bring Britain back off the ledge - or make it finally jump. But, starting now, there is an important debate to be had about what exactly it is the British people should eventually decide to be in or out of. Many of the matters on which British eurosceptics concentrate – the working time directive, European arrest warrant etc – are secondary. Meanwhile, the Eurozone will do what the Eurozone has got to do, or it will fail. There will then be an important negotiation to ensure that the result does not harm British interests, through the regulations of the new banking union, for example, or creeping changes in the single market.

The real question, however, for pro-Europeans in Britain but also pro-Brits in Europe, is this: are there any major areas of policy where Britain could, should and would be prepared to do more in and for Europe, and thereby for itself? If we can find a good answer to that question, we will change the terms of thedebate on both sides of the Channel – and we might even end up with a better Europe.


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

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