Trakai, Lithuania. 14 January. The Snow Meeting. Trakai Castle sits firm and strong on its island stronghold in the midst of a snowbound, frozen lake. Built in the fourteenth century the castle protected the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from attacks by the Teutonic Knights. As we looked upon Europe’s past an array of prime ministers, foreign ministers and ambassadors from across the western world considered Europe’s future. This intense, small, annual meeting is a gem in the calendar and so different in tone from many ego-fests. It is also one of those moments in a year when I really speak truth unto power in my role as strategic court jester.
In Lithuania both the European Union and NATO make sense. Some 190 kilometres from the Russian border Moscow is always present. In the 1960s then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once cited the restoration of Trakai Castle as an example of what he called the ‘nationalism’ that he believed threatened the then-Soviet Union. Today, we would call such ‘nationalism’ political liberty; the right of nation-states to self-govern, a theme that ran throughout the conference.
Two big geopolitical pictures of note were painted, one understood, the other not. Russia is ever looking to exploit weakness and irresolution in the West even if in reality the only stable border Russia has in the one a short distance from here. With the Eurozone crisis having now effectively killed off any prospect of EU enlargement to the likes of Belarus or Ukraine and with little to offer as incentives for political reform therein, the Kremlin has offered an alternative Eurasian Union with Moscow firmly embedded at its centre. This was clearly understood by all present but there was little that could be done other than to let the Russians screw it up in their own inimitable fashion.
The second big geopolitical picture concerned the consequences of crisis-driven, Germany-led, Brussels Centre managed deeper economic and political integration in the Eurozone and Britain’s reaction to it. On the eve of the biggest shift ever in the balance of power between the EU state and Brussels Centre it is clear from this meeting that no-one will support Cameron’s objective of repatriating powers from Brussels. Indeed, there is no mood to compensate Britain for its coming downgrading by the Eurozone, referendum or no referendum. The Germans know full well that the British political Left (including the Liberal Democrats) are willing to sacrifice any amount of Britain’s political liberty to keep Berlin and Brussels smiling on them, whatever the views of the British people. Thus, Germany has no need to give any ground whatsoever to Britain and can drive on regardless now that it has Washington’s backing.
What I was shocked by was the level to which the European elite as a whole have convinced themselves that what is about to happen is a good thing and that somehow Britain gets a good deal. One very senior person quoted figures about how much Britain benefits from the EU that were spectacularly wrong. On 22 January Cameron will offer the British people a 2015 sort-of referendum on the EU. If he is still in power (big if) he will then go to Brussels with his demands and promptly be told to “Brussels Off”. At that point the reality of Euro-integration will be apparent to all and London will face a choice – sign up to Germany’s Europe or try and quit.
The Eurasian Union is already a busted flush, whilst the future EU will simply not work and whatever the pressure or propaganda Britain must stand firm and continue to resist. Rather than force the recalcitrant into a structure they can never accept, will never work and which affords all sorts of dangers to democratic oversight of over-mighty power work should rather begin on an entirely new EU. That was the essential point made by George Osborne, the British finance minister, in an 11 January interview with German newspaper Die Welt.
In my opening remarks to the conference I warned about a weak Europe playing bad chess whilst the rest of the world plays stud poker. Here in Lithuania Realpolitik is ever present and unless Europeans relearn the rules of geopolitics the new balance of power that emerges from it will be cast utterly at Europe's expense. If ‘Europe’ is to make sense the real challenge is a Europe that can compete effectively across all economic and strategic domains and which is seen as legitimate and democratic by all its peoples. Surely, this is an agenda that can unite Germans, Britons, Swedes and most other Europeans?
Perhaps the most poignant, painful lesson for this life-long Atlanticist from the meeting was the abandonment of Britain by an Obama administration contemptuous of Britain. The Special Relationship is finally dead; long-live the New Special Relationship…America and Germany.
Of course, none of this was confronted head-on. Too much snow.