The U.K. Takes the Helm of the Rotating European Presidency

Posted in Europe | 06-Jul-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair gestures at the 'UK Presidency of the EU 2005' news conference at the Foreign Office in London July 1, 2005.

The European nation-state considered to be the least Europeanist, the United Kingdom, took the presidency of the E.U. on July 1, right after the double French and Dutch rejection of the E.U. Constitutional Treaty and the failure of the June 16-17 European Council -- a sign interpreted by many as the beginning of the end for the European political and strategic union. Although many observers believe that the British rotation is going to further aggravate the E.U.'s political crisis, and that the project of a common European Security and Defense Policy (E.S.D.P.) could suffer from a "final blow" in the next six months, a careful analysis of the U.K.-E.U. relationship will highlight a more complex reality, helping to assess the stakes involved and the likely developments to come.

The Context of the British Rotation

After a clear win in the British elections, British Labor Party leader Tony Blair will lead the European Union during one of its worst crises since the 1950s. The outcome of the French and Dutch referenda on the E.U. Constitutional Treaty shows widespread discontent toward the economic and political aspects of the European integration process. Not only has the 2004 enlargement caused a deep identity crisis in previously very pro-E.U. citizenships, but the Euro itself, normally considered as a unique political, institutional and monetary success story, is nowadays increasingly attacked as a tool responsible for the middle classes' impoverishment and for the inability of governments to revitalize declining national economies.

Although the thorny issue of the British position on its budget rebate -- some five billion dollars awarded every year to London from the European Union, a policy established in 1984 when Great Britain was a poorer country -- is the most heatedly European subject at the moment, continental elites are more worried by London's steps which could possibly render the E.U.'s emergence as a real geopolitical unit even more unlikely. Three facts seem to indicate that political -- rather than economic -- concerns are the real stakes in the next six months.

The first concern is that Britain has not joined the Euro, thus making the revision of the Growth and Stability Pact an issue mainly in the hands of Paris, Berlin, Rome and other Euro-based economies. The second issue, and most important, is that the British European policy has always stressed the necessity to promote free market and single market integration, but at the same time it has tried to prevent the rise of a Franco-German political lead while working to make the Atlantic alliance remain the angular stone of European security. The third issue is that the E.U.'s political personnel have recently promoted the implementation of European diplomacy.

Significantly, right after France's blatant vote against the E.U. Constitutional Treaty, a return of allegedly obsolete proposals such as the "European core" (Kerneuropa) theory immediately appeared in the French and German political landscapes. On May 31, German Christian-Democrat politician Karl Lamers declared to Le Figaro that a strong European core -- to be formed around the Franco-German combine and the European defense project -- would be the only antidote to the Continental malaise. If economic integration has undoubtedly been the E.U.'s growth engine up till now, contends Lamers, the present crisis could be overcome by stressing the political-strategic aspects of the relationship, so that Europe will finally be perceived as a distinct geopolitical unit, and one which is allied, but not subordinated, to the United States. [See: "The Rise of French Pro-Sovereignty Movements and their Geopolitical Consequences"]

On the same wavelength, but even more audaciously, French neo-Gaullist politician Henri de Grossouvre wrote on June 15 in Le Figaro that the present confused political context could be favorable for a courageous step toward a European political project based upon the Paris-Berlin axis and enlarged to Belgium, Luxembourg and Hungary. A new version of Kerneuropa aimed at revitalizing the ambitions of a coherent, strong and independent European geopolitical entity -- open to progressive enlargements only after the core's strengthening.

Both proposals put the E.S.D.P. at the center, thus calling for a realistic and unbiased assessment of the U.K.-E.U. relationship concerning European defense.

The U.K. and European Defense: an Evolving Issue

During the 1990-91 negotiations that led to the Maastricht Treaty, British Foreign Affairs Minister Douglas Hurd became known for his intransigent refusal to employ the expression "common defense" when referring to the European Foreign and Security Policy. London's interests were ones of free trade, privatization, and deregulation, with no need for a European autonomous security and defense policy.

After the negotiations ended, British Prime Minister John Major described the outcome as "game, set and match for Britain." London worked successfully, together with different pro-American and Atlanticist elites, in order to maintain N.A.T.O.'s primacy in European security matters. The U.K.'s strategy has, therefore, been often misunderstood as that of an American "Trojan horse" in Europe, whereas London has developed a much more sophisticated policy predicated upon a favorable compromise between its "special relationship" with Washington and the promotion of its economic interests in the European Union. By assuming the role of an "Atlantic avant-garde" in Europe, London tries to keep a decisive role in Euro-American relations, a role necessary to gain as much influence as possible.

This is exactly what pushed Tony Blair's strategist Charles Grant and some other Labor Party exponents to actively promote the construction of a European Security and Defense Identity since 1997. As British official Roderic Braithwaite explained in Prospect Magazine in May 2003, a junior partner who is taken for granted is unlikely to have any influence. Therefore, London should show the U.S. its willingness and capability to act independently when needed. Britain -- and the "new" Labor Party in particular -- consequently perceives the European security and defense capability as a tool to increase its influence in Washington, as only London can be the mediator between France and the U.S., necessary in order to keep the European defense system embedded in the transatlantic security architecture.

As a result, at the end of 1998, Paris and London expressed the will to promote a credible European defense capability in a joint declaration at St. Malo. Since then, the only appreciable progress in European defense policy was made when Paris, Berlin and London worked together in the Euro-Atlantic framework. On the contrary, Franco-German attempts to launch a more independent European security and defense without London -- as seen during the Iraq crisis in spring 2003 -- have not produced tangible results.

Since the transatlantic rift of 2002-2003, however, intra-European relations are less favorable to an intensive Franco-British-German cooperation in the build-up of a credible European defense, although the three countries have acted together diplomatically when faced with Iran's nuclear proliferation issue.

The Decisive Relationship: the U.S. and the "E.U.-3"

Notwithstanding the E.U.'s enlargement and introduction of a single European currency, the destiny of the E.U. still appears to be largely determined by inter-state relations, and particularly by the interaction among the three more influential countries (the U.K., France and Germany) and the United States.

At a time when the U.S. is the only world superpower, London, unlike Paris and Berlin, does not have the desire to facilitate the rise of a multipolar order. Conversely, as mentioned above, Britain will try to promote its interests in a free market-based Europe and in a renewed transatlantic alliance.

As a consequence, the U.K. will share some French and German interests at times, but not always. It is, therefore, wrong to state that Britain is simply against Europe; it is right to say that its support of European political integration is hinged upon some conditions. London will actively take part in the E.S.D.P. as long as it becomes a more credible pillar of the Atlantic alliance, thus making the U.K. the indispensable "bridge" between the two sides of the ocean. Britain will not, however, give support to any attempt to build a strong continental European core.

This latter, though, should not be perceived as a widely shared project in the German landscape. Lamers' proposals described above do not appear to be the same of the more pro-American Christian-Democrat leader Angela Merkel, who will likely win the 2006 legislative elections.


London's plans for European political integration look fairly explicit. Tony Blair will try to save the E.U.'s enlargement from the rising anti-enlargement sentiment of Western European countries. He'll also try to promote a further liberalization of the European market. His support of European security and defense capabilities will be largely dependent upon the transatlantic relationship. As long as France and Germany will agree upon a renewal of the Euro-American security alliance, making the European political project a pillar of a transatlantic community, London is very likely to sponsor E.S.D.P. as the necessary European pillar.

If, on the contrary, Paris and/or Berlin try to promote a European core -- to be used in a more competitive, multipolar sense -- a serious clash between Britain and the continental powers is likely to explode in the coming months. Given the weakness of the present French and German governments, such ambitious moves would be very hard for Paris and Berlin to sustain.

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