Alphen, Netherlands. 27 May. This week the slavishly pro-EU newspaper The Guardian ran the headline, “Germany (and France) tighten their grip on Europe”. The trekkies amongst you will recall Star Trek: the Next Generation back in the 1990s. It was a very ‘European’ Star Trek in which a very English (Yorkshire actually) captain of the Starship Enterprise pretended to be French but was in fact far more Nelson than Bonaparte. And, the really, really, really bad villains – the Borg – were quite clearly Swedish. Imagine a spaceship full of alien Carl Bildts and you get the basic idea. The Borg were implacable – Jean-Luc Picard could not talk to them, reason with them, or debate with them. All the Borg would do was to repeat the mantra, “resistance is futile’. David Cameron must be feeling like that this morning and it is only Week One of his efforts to repatriate some very modest powers from Brussels to Britain.
Cameron has at least achieved one thing; he has flushed the Germans (and French) out into the political open. It is now clear for all to see that the EU is not a political union at all. It is a good old-fashioned empire with Germany (and France) at its core. This was revealed by the deliciously-timed leak of secret German (and French) proposals to deepen Eurozone integration that had been agreed at a secret meeting in the margins of last week’s Riga Summit. The leak was timed to coincide with Cameron’s meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker and thus to cause ‘Dave’ maximum embarrassment. .
For months now I have been told by senior German and French politicians and officials that the seriously modest (some would say cosmetic) changes Cameron seeks would require a treaty change and for that reason such changes are impossible. Britain, I was told, must take the EU as it is or leave it. Now Germany (and France) seeks to move far and fast towards deeper political and economic union and somehow such a move will not require treaty change. What complete and utter hypocrisy.
The irony is that Germany (and France) is right. Back in 2010 at the height of the crisis I published a much-lambasted piece entitled “Britain must now leave the EU”. My logic was irresistible. If the Eurozone was to be saved much deeper political and economic integration would be required through the establishment of pan-EU institutions that in effect replaced national decision-making with some form of federal structure. Indeed, that was precisely the intent of Jacques Delors when he helped dream up the Single Currency. When it comes to ‘ever closer union’ there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ crisis in the EU. Britain, my logic ran, would never join the Euro and therefore would become a second class passenger on the EU train paying a first class fare. Worse, Germany (and France) would never let Britain anywhere near the locomotive which they had firmly under their control. Therefore, for the sake of the Eurozone AND for Britain the British should leave….amicably.
It may be that the secret accord agreed in the margins between Germany (and France) is but the opening shot in the Brexit negotiation. Behind the hubris the issues implicit in the Brexit debate are fundamental. The British are questioning the very idea of ‘ever closer union’ sanctified at the heart of every European treaty since 1957. They are challenging the very idea of European elitism and challenging the idea that the best form of governance is at the highest and thus most distant level of power. Above all, the British are doing what they have done for centuries; challenging hegemony in Europe. The language may be different and indeed the institutional setting but implicit in the Brexit is the same impulse as drove the British to oppose Phillip II of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and indeed Hitler. For the record I am NOT equating modern Germany with either the Kaiser or the Nazis but history is always eloquent in Europe.
If Berlin (and Paris) drive fair thinking Brits away by insisting upon deeper political integration at the EXPENSE of the world’s fifth largest economy, Europe’s second largest economy, and for all the defence-incompetence of the current government, Europe’s most powerful military actor (outside of Russia) then Britain WILL leave the EU. And, no amount of bullying by multinational corporations will stop it.
Rather, a proper, adult negotiation must start that deliberately distinguishes itself from history. Jean Claude Juncker has said he wants a “fair deal” for Britain. That could work one of two ways. If the EU is indeed an empire in all but name Germany and France could take the bold step of simply inviting Britain into its command club. If, on the other hand, Berlin and Paris really are prepared to surrender deep sovereignty to create a real European Union then a new form or Single Market membership should be created.
“Resistance is futile” is not the message to send to the British right now. However, the simple truth is that the EU has reached a crossroads, a bifurcation, a junction that can no longer be avoided. Equally, the British people should be under no illusion; even this modest attempt to repatriate powers represents a fundamental challenge to Europe’s power order. My only hope is David Cameron, a man who routinely and deliberately confuses politics with strategy, also understands the strategic importance of the moment and indeed its significance.