Britain's Atlantic Option

Britain's Atlantic Option

Mini Teaser: Britain is dithering about whether to join the European Monetary Union or to go it alone. But it should explore the much better option of becoming a member of an expanded NAFTA--an arrangement more in accord with its traditions and interests.

by Author(s): Conrad Black

Ninety years ago, Lord Curzon--an intellectual grandee and holder of high offices, including viceroy of India and foreign secretary--opined that, without its empire,

England from having been the arbiter will sink at best into the inglorious playground of the world. Our antiquities, our natural beauties, our mansion houses and parks will attract a crowd of wandering pilgrims. People will come to see us just as they climbed the Acropolis at Athens or ascend the waters of the Nile. England will become a sort of glorified Belgium.

This, it has turned out, was unduly pessimistic. While the Empire is all but gone, Britain remains one of the eight or so countries, grouped in the second rank behind the United States, that retain some world role. The United Kingdom's status in the world owes less to its nuclear weapons and permanent seat at the UN Security Council than to its prosperity on the edge of Europe, and its central historical and cultural position in the English-speaking world which it founded. In an international political universe of some 180 countries, Britain's status is not an unenviable one, and from this platform of deserved respect it is possible to envision several alternative courses for Britain's future.

At any rate, it should be possible. But the discussion of the British future today evidences almost no hint of open horizons. Instead, the British national imagination is staggering in a sludge of inevitability about a progressively tighter European Union. While there is virtually no enthusiasm in Britain for plunging deeper into such a Union--all the polls show a profound disenchantment with the Brussels bureaucracy, a deep reticence about monetary union, and growing skepticism about the economic implications of a British future in Europe--the general sense is that it will happen anyway.

The Blair government is both a microcosm of this state of affairs and a contributor to it. It has kept Britain away from the euro for the time being, yet its body language suggests grudging accession in a few years--unless, of course, catastrophe overtakes the experiment in the meantime. It is not entirely clear whether the Blair government's
reluctance to embrace the Union reflects real doubts about its viability and logic, or about whether entry would best serve Britain's interests, or, again, whether it is merely that political expediency has suggested a slow approach to an accepted end. Whatever the motives, the resulting uncertainty is demoralizing.

Advocates of immediate entry into the European Monetary Union certainly exist in Britain. But while a grandiose vision of a united Europe is the chief argument for Eurofederalism bandied about in continental Europe, in Britain the federalists, apart from a few people in transactional financial businesses, are reduced to a fatalistic advocacy that Britain should be part of a tight European union--one culminating in federation--if only because staying out may be more harmful than going in. The truth is that many in Britain fear isolation, and, with it, marginalization. Without an empire, there is a widespread view that the country must associate with some larger group, and Europe appears to most to be the only such group at hand.

What seems to have been forgotten at least until recently is that, unlike any other European country, the United Kingdom has both an Atlantic and European vocation. Europe and North America are both plausible associations for the British, the latter much superior to the former in many ways. Unfortunately, Britain's North American alternative is underdeveloped in public discourse. It is the main purpose of this essay to unfurl its logic, which, it turns out, is a wholesome one not only for Great Britain, but also for the United States and Canada.

The Ambivalence of Britain

Britain coped with the loss of empire with more dignity than other great imperial powers. But the country is still afflicted by an existential loneliness, dating at least from the Suez fiasco of 1956, and the history of Britain's ambivalent association with the European project reflects that loneliness.

Less than a year after the Suez crisis, the Treaty of Rome was signed. The final loss of what had become the imperial illusion thus dovetailed almost perfectly with the rise of the European integration project. The four decades that followed were marked by British uncertainty and inconsistency toward Europe. Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, tried to combine a special closeness to the United States (affecting to play the sage Greek to Kennedy's Roman) with membership in the Common Market--only to be harshly rejected by de Gaulle, who found such a combination unacceptable and vetoed Britain's Common Market application in 1962. Harold Wilson was initially Euroskeptical (1964-70), then cautiously pro-European in his second term (1974-76), but always ambiguous and evasive. There was nothing ambiguous about the nearly pathologically anti-American Edward Heath (1970-74), who did his best to deconstruct almost any relationship with the United States. One of nature's corporatists, while advocating a modest common market he strove to promote practically unlimited European supra-nationalism--but he could bring neither his party nor his countrymen along with him to any appreciable degree.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) rebuilt the American relationship, demonstrated that Britain could influence U.S. policy making, and showed that Britain retained autonomous moral authority in the world. Toward Europe she was less consistent. She was one of the instigators of the Single European Act, which required some surrender of sovereignty on the part of the members, and under cabinet pressure took Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, fixing the relationship between members' currencies. Then she declared her implacable opposition to a more supra-national Europe. John Major (1990-97) started out believing Europe could be placated with gestures stopping well short of integration, but discovered otherwise. (The revival of British prosperity began when Britain fell out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.)

Tony Blair's ambivalence, already noted, is almost impenetrable and rather illogical, especially for a new leader with an impregnable position in Parliament and the polls. Mr. Blair has said he will pool sovereignty without surrendering it and will be governed by the British national interest in monetary union and other euro questions. This would suggest that choices are available. But to say so outright would not be compatible with the basic argument propounded by British
Eurofederalists--with whom Blair and his party are closely associated--that Euro-integration is inexorable and Britain should get in step with the ineluctable forces of history if it wants to exercise any influence in Europe. Blair is right: he not only has a choice, but he will have to make it sooner or later. Unfortunately,
like most of his countrymen, he seems to have an impoverished notion of the alternatives.

Two Political Cultures

During most of the period just outlined, British public interest in the European question was tepid. Certainly, the 1975 referendum on whether to leave or remain in the Common Market produced a burst of furious debate, but for ten to fifteen years after that there was a kind of intellectual demobilization. It was only as the Common Market
became the Community, and the Community finally became the Union, that unease grew rapidly at the spectacle of a Britain increasingly isolated and often outvoted eleven to one. That uneasiness grew further when evidence accumulated that Jacques Delors' soothing notions of subsidiarity within the Union--essentially the promise that local matters would still be decided close to their point of origin, by local and not central EU authorities--was simply a scam. Increasingly, polls indicated that the British public was becoming disillusioned with the endless cascade of authoritarian directives
from Brussels, which, in the interests of "harmonization", sought to regulate even the most obscure aspects of British life, from the stacking of fruit in supermarkets to seasons for bird-shooting in the northern counties. By now, almost all polls show that 70 percent of the people oppose any further move into Europe, and that a significant minority would be happy to depart Europe politically altogether, while keeping the free-trade arrangements.

The British consistently support the Common Market's free movement of goods and people, and few want to give up such a common sense advantage. But increasingly there is resentment that it has been encumbered with all sorts of unwanted economic policy costs and dangers. Recently, these dangers have been highlighted by remarks from the new German finance minister and governing party chairman, Oskar Lafontaine, calling for Britain to accept higher tax rates,
greater social spending and an increased EU annual membership fee; and from the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, calling for an end to individual country vetoes and a majority voting system in which Britain would be swamped. Even more recently, the revelation by the normally docile EU Court of Auditors that $5 billion annually is squandered by the European Commission in fraudulent or grossly wasteful spending has further shaken the federalists.

The problems transcend economics. The prevailing British view is that British political institutions, which have served the country well for centuries, should not be stripped jurisdictionally to clothe Brussels and Strasbourg, which are unaccountable and authoritarian by Anglo-Saxon standards; that Britain should not go back to the pre-Thatcher European levels of taxation and industrial strife; and that Britain should not slam the door on its relationships with the United States and Canada. These relationships (along with the geographical fact of the English Channel) have been Britain's greatest strategic asset in this century, and the British are understandably reluctant to dismantle them. So for that matter are the Canadians--and so too should be the Americans.

Essay Types: Essay