Britain is at a fork in the road with a choice to make about what role it will play in the 21st century. Yet, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron’s long-awaited speech about Europe is a miscalculation that will leave everyone frustrated.
With the speech, British euro-skeptics are denied an immediate referendum on EU membership, and pro-Europeans in Britain will lose their voice in the debate about Europe’s future while their country’s energy is wasted on renegotiating existing powers. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to deal with a quest for special treatment rather than have a reliable British partner at a time of uncertainty. Worst of all, Cameron’s promise to go for a cosmetic renegotiation followed by a campaign to stay in the EU is designed to obscure rather than resolve the fundamental dilemma facing his compatriots – a choice between two radically different British futures.
On the one hand, the euro-skeptics, who have held Cameron hostage in parliamentary votes on Europe, have a clear agenda. They have set out a modern argument that is very different from the blimpish isolationism of past decades. In the place of old arguments about European super-states destroying British sovereignty, they have an entirely new narrative of a Britain “tethered to the corpse” of the euro zone. They claim that the single market ties British business in red tape; the Customs Union holds Britain hostage to the protectionist lobbies of all member states; and the free movement of people is flooding its labor market with immigrants. The EU seems a fossilized relic of the 20th century in a new digital world. What matters to the skeptics, in the words of conservative columnist Matthew d’Ancona for GQ, is “not post-colonial reach or the ability to fight alongside America in military interventions, but the real freedom to trade globally.” He concludes: “What is so bad about being a new Singapore off the shore of Europe?”
The new euro-skeptics think that the modern era transcends geography, uniting the world economically and politically in the cloud. The countries they admire the most – such as Australia, Dubai and Singapore – have successfully managed to carve out a global role without being hung up on trying to shape the world. What the new skeptics want flows naturally from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Cameron’s foreign policy of trying to pull back from what Cameron saw as the “over-reach” of the Blair era.
The “Brameron” era has been characterized by a move away from both Washington and the EU, a sense of the primacy of economic diplomacy, and a greater interest in the troops in Afghanistan and aid workers in Africa than the pursuit of traditional influence. The intellectual rationale for this move is that while Britain may enter a “new Elizabethan age” where it retains a global outlook, it should refuse to be drawn into disputes about the shape of the euro in Europe’s backyard, in which it has little interest.