Jacob Heilbrunn

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Warning On Britain and the European Union

Great Britain has been conducting an agonizing reappraisal of its relationship with the European Union. For months Prime Minister David Cameron has been trying to elide the issue of a referendum, while placating the anti-European fanatics in his own Tory Party. Now Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, has raised eyebrows in London with his statement that it would be foolish for Great Britain to attentuate, or even terminate, its attachment to the European Union.

Gordon apparently told journalists that the British should, in effect, get on with it. He said,

We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America's interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.

How has it reached the point that Britain, which was denied entry in 1963 into the Common Market by Charles de Gaulle, is now contemplating an exit from the vastly more comprehensive European Union? On Wednesday evening the distinguished British commentator and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft spoke as part of the Ellsworth lecture series at the Center for the National Interest to elucidate mounting British antipathy towards the European Union. Wheatcroft's message was clear and direct: Great Britain has never felt emotionally attached to the European idea. It was, as the historian Tony Judt observed, one of the few victors of World War II; it did not have to be liberated from the Nazi yoke. It felt superior, even smug, about its record and didn't have to flee, as did the Germans, into the idea of Europe as supplanting its old nationalism. Meanwhile, many Europeans perceived the European Union, at least in its earliest incarnation, as a kind of Catholic confederation, led by the likes of German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. So the British, from the outset, had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of European unity, which was captured in Winston Churchill's famous speech in Zurich in 1946, urging the Europeans forward but reserving an ambiguous status for Great Britain.

But for Great Britain to try and bolt from the European Union would be a disaster for both its and its allies and friends on the continent. Britain, as Wheatcroft suggested, would only end up stranding itself in not-so-splendid isolation. For one thing, the United States would not come of the rescue of its old World War II ally--the idea of a new Anglo-American confederation, which has been touted by some neoconservatives, is a pipedream. There is no conceivable economic incentive for America to elevate Great Britain above, say, Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe.

Meanwhile, the Irish, as the New York Times points out, are apoplectic at London's EU tergiversations. Prime Minister Enda Kenny said it would be "disastrous" for Britain to leave. He's right. Ireland, for one, has been milking the EU for eleemosynary funds; Kenny's latest tack has been to tell the Germans that Ireland needs further debt relief, which it will likely receive.

It would be foolhardy for Britain to test the patience of its European partners much further. The debate over Europe, as Wheatcroft suggested, is going much farther (and faster) than it ever should have gone. While it might be emotionally satisfying to sever ties with Brussels, the economic results would be catastrophic. Wishful thinking does not constitute sound or rational policy, a lesson that one might think the Blair years had driven home to the British. Alas, there is no guarantee at all that the Tory party, under considerable pressure from the U.K. Independence Party, won't buckle. If Cameron bungles British membership, he will accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of going down as one of the most feckless prime ministers in British history.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.