Political partnerships are difficult – especially, it seems, with the Conservative Party. Just ask the Lib Dems or member states of the European Union. There are yet more moves towards closer EU integration of foreign policy. Britain is, inevitably, being sidelined and bypassed in this process. Co-ordinated foreign policy would leverage the EU’s position as the world’s largest trading block. Given that Britain’s relative global power is diminishing it would make sense that the country uses its unique position in the EU to punch above its weight internationally. But fear not, William Hague has a plan, even a vision – Britain’s future international influence lies with the British Commonwealth.
Britain is to share embassies with Canada and hopes to extend this relationship to include Australia and New Zealand. There will be co-location arrangements and if one of these countries has an embassy in a country the others don’t then the other nations will be able to share. This is an admirable and sensible suggestion that may save money. The next step is a bigger leap. This move is reportedly part of a British effort to head off an expanding European Union diplomatic network. There are a number of obvious flaws in this thinking. The largest is that the British Commonwealth is not a single economic bloc and is not politically integrated. The USA, China and other powers will not be negotiating agreements with the Commonwealth any time soon. Merely sharing embassies will not lead to additional influence. Another failure of logic is the idea that Britain should be counterbalancing EU diplomats – after all, Britain is a member of that institution.
The idea that this will head off EU diplomatic expansion is nonsense and given that William Hague seems a capable politician I suspect privately he knows this. The move has all the appearance of someone throwing red meat to Eurosceptics contemplating voting for UKIP. It demonstrates the extent to which Euroscepticism is a siren calling Conservative European policy to an isolated and dangerously rocky shore. British refusal to get involved with European integration often contributes to its long term decline in influence. Typically Britain eventually signs up to what has been agreed but does so when the rules have been written by someone else. Hague has employed historians to look at how Britain’s colonial past has an impact on today’s problems. It would be wise to ask Foreign Office historians to examine the opportunities missed by Britain in refusing to get fully involved in the European project.
A combination of national pride, being a victorious power in World War II and grappling with decolonisation led Britain to avoid involvement in the initial steps towards European integration. As with today there was a belief amongst the British political class that the European project was doomed to failure and therefore Britain was best off out of it. How wrong they were. The result was Britain missing the chance to significantly influence European integration to its advantage and then three British applications to join the European Community over a twelve year period before finally becoming a member under quite unfavourable terms. Despite the current Euro crisis and other bones of contention the EU is set to remain a fixture on the international stage. On Europe the Foreign Secretary seems happier to be stuck in the past rather than to learn from it.
Even apart from this Britain’s future is in Europe. Not to think so is simply to be in denial. As Philip Stephens astutely points out the ‘special relationship’ will inevitably diminish in importance to the USA as it moves its focus towards the Pacific. The EU will be a key player at future global trade negotiations, not an isolated UK. If the UK wants to remain globally influential it needs to throw its lot in whole heartedly with the EU. Cameron’s phantom veto and the spin on the embassy sharing announcement demonstrate the direction UKIP is now dragging UK foreign policy. A group of people David Cameron described as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. To appease this mentality when it comes to Britain’s future global role is a mistake of immense proportions.