Alphen, Netherlands. 24 April. To save the EU on Friday last President Obama finally ended what Winston Churchill first dubbed the Special Relationship (big ‘S’, big ‘R’). And yet the president offered no American view of the future of Europe. Indeed, what was striking about Friday’s carefully-staged Obama-Cameron (in that order) press conference in the utterly inappropriate Locarno Room of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was just how ‘unspecial’ the Special Relationship has become. Rather, the world witnessed a lame duck president telling the facts of power life to (and for) a lame duck prime minister about the future of what Washington clearly regards as a lame duck power in what has become a dangerously lame duck institution. Why?
First, President Obama repeated the enduring American misunderstanding about European history. For many in the Washington elite there were no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Europeans in the past. Neither World War One nor World War Two were struggles between good and evil, democracy and totalitarianism. They were European ‘civil’ wars for which and in which all Europeans were responsible for the price America had to pay to ‘save’ said Europeans from themselves.
Second, President Obama repeated the enduring American elite obsession with a united states of Europe. Ever since Jean Monnet seduced US Secretary of State and uber-grandee John Foster Dulles the Washington elite, both left and right, have by and large bought into the silly notion that a US of E would one day emerge in the image of the US of A. Moreover, many still believe a federal Europe would share the American world view and be supportive of it. Wrong on both counts.
Third, President Obama reflected Washington’s dislike of anyone challenging the mistaken American view of ‘Europe’. Far from being America’s closest ally in Europe Britain has become one of its biggest irritants. This is why the president so belittled Britain, its people and its role in the world. It is also why the Americans last week compared Britain’s relationship with Brussels with that of North Dakota to Washington. The simple fact that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and a top five world military power was simply brushed aside. The only special relationship (small ‘s’, small ‘r’) that exists is between America and Germany precisely because it is founded on power.
At the beginning of this blog I referred to the inappropriateness of holding the Obama-Cameron press conference in the FCO’s Locarno Room. The 1925 Treaty of Locarno allowed Germany to join the League of Nations as part of the then hope that laws and institutions could replace power and force in the affairs of Europe. President Obama and the fawning David Cameron hoped this would send a signal about the continued need for such institutions and the ‘laws’ they spawn in Europe.
The political sentiment is of course right. However, law without power are, as Hobbes had it, “covenants without the sword” and doomed to fail. In 1936 Adolf Hitler destroyed that hope when he marched German forces into the Rhineland. The Obama administration seems like many on this side of the pond to also believe that if ‘laws’ are just and institutions effective then there will be little need for power and force. Sadly, law must be reinforced by sanction and institutions can only be effective if they are seen by the people as legitimate. At no point during his visit did President Obama address the crucial dilemmas of power, legitimacy and efficiency facing contemporary Europe.
The paradox of contemporary US policy is that the blind commitment of the White House and much of Washington to the failed Monnet-Dulles ‘vision’ of Europe is also preventing Europe recover from its strategic slough. If Europe is to recover from the self-engineered Eurozone crisis and the Schengen-exaggerated migration crisis, and if Europeans are to again reinvest in the defence of their own continent, what is needed is not more fantasy federal Europe, but a realist Europe built on a close super-alliance of Europe’s nation-states. In other words, Europeans need a unity Europe, not a united Europe.
The clear failure of President Obama to understand that simple distinction was perhaps for me the most striking failure of his London remarks. It also reinforced the paradox of this most paradoxical of Obama’s visits to Britain. Yes, there are unthinking Brexiteers who can be described as parochial, nostalgic little Englanders. Indeed, Cameron is trying to paint all Brexiteers as such. However, there are also serious, heavyweight thinking Brexiteers who like me understand the real problem; this ‘Europe’, i.e. this EU, simply does not work. It is not democratic enough, and will never generate either sufficient wealth or sufficient security precisely because of its very self. Critically, unless the link between people and governance is restored by putting the member-states firmly back at the centre of the European Project the EU will never become a power partner of the United States in the world.
My view is not peculiar to Britain or indeed myself. Indeed, it is a view now held by millions of Europeans. Therefore, the strategic task now at hand is to step back from the dead-end of a united Europe and to create in its stead a functioning unity Europe, without as the Americans fear the collapse of the whole edifice of ‘Europe’. However, the failure of President Obama to a) recognise Europe’s contemporary reality; and b) commit to helping Britain achieve such a realist reality was perhaps the greatest failure of vision in Obama’s London remarks. Certainly, the implicit suggestion by President Obama that the EU represents the status quo will soon prove to be utterly misplaced.
My on balance judgement is that Britain should remain within the EU at this tipping point in its affairs and help fix it. However, it will be very hard to ‘fix’ the EU if Washington remains fixated on a fantasy federal Europe. The future of Europe is a unity Europe, not a united states of Europe and both America and Britain must help create it. However, to succeed Washington must first understand the limits of ‘Europe’, and London must relearn how to wield power.
You insulted me last week, Mr President. Not because you insulted my country because on the issue of British weakness I think you have a point. No, Mr President, you insulted my intelligence by trying to reduce all the fundamental issues of democracy and governance implicit in the Brexit debate down to a simple issue of trade. Somehow I thought you were bigger than that. Silly me. No matter, Mr President. After all, I am a mere European citizen and my views count for nothing.