By Marcel H. Van Herpen

Director of the Cicero Foundation


Is a window of opportunity opening itself for Britain that will enable it to play a more important role in the EU? This seems, indeed, to be the case and it is surprising if we look at what Brzezinski wrote in his book The Grand Chessboard. Brzezinski's judgment is very critical. In comparison with the geostrategic players France and Germany: "…Great Britain is not a geostrategic player. It has fewer major options, it entertains no ambitious vision of Europe's future, and its relative decline has also reduced its capacity to play the traditional role of the European balancer. Its ambivalence regarding European unification and its attachment to a waning special relationship with America have made Great Britain increasingly irrelevant insofar as the major choices confronting Europe's future are concerned. London has largely dealt itself out of the European game."
If these words, written in 1997, were true then, are they still true today? The ambitious diplomatic activity, in which Tony Blair and his government have engaged, seems to contradict every word written by Brzezinski in regard to London's irrelevancy in dealing with the major choices that confront Europe's future. London has certainly not dealt itself out of the European game. On the contrary: a unique window of opportunity is now opening itself for Britain that will enable it to play an active and creative role in Europe. Why is this so? What has changed between 1997 and 2002?

In my view there are three reasons for this new situation:

1.          At a conference of the Cicero Foundation in Paris in March 2001 the British ambassador to France, Sir Michael Jay, stressed the importance of the Anglo-French St. Malo initiative.* Rightly so. The 1990s were the decade of Europe's monetary integration, a process in which Britain was sidelined. Since St. Malo(1998) and the Helsinki summit(1999) defence and foreign policy integration have been put on the agenda as the logical next steps. And it is in these two fields in particular that Britain has many trump cards. It is not only - with France - the most important military power of the EU (including its nuclear arsenal), but it has also an important worldwide diplomatic network and a permanent seat in the Security Council.

2.          At the same time the traditional French-German 'motor' of the EU seems to be in disarray. This is not only due to the poor personal chemistry between Chirac and Schröder and the coming elections in both countries, but has also deeper, structural reasons: the growing divergence of the economic and foreign policy interests of France and the new, united Germany (especially concerning the enlargement).

3.          A third factor is the foreign policy activism of the British PM in the aftermath of September 11. Not Mr. Pesc - the EU High Representative for the CFSP, Javier Solana - but Tony Blair seems for third countries and EU citizens alike to represent Europe's foreign policy.

This situation creates new chances for an enhanced role of Britain in Europe. At the same time, these chances can only be taken if Britain can avoid making too many mistakes. And mistakes have been made. One was the mini summit in London, in which only France and Germany were originally invited. (This action created an immediate uproar from the smaller countries, forcing Blair to extend the list of invitees). An other mistake was the recent British suggestion to create a European Security Council with three permanent seats for the Big Three (a suggestion that immediately was renounced by the British government). These British initiatives suggest that Britain wants to join the French-German motor, changing it into a Trilateral Body. This would mean an important change in the British EU strategy. Since it became an EC member, this strategy was based on coalition building in all directions and on bilateral initiatives, as well with countries outside the Franco-German axis (for instance with Italy and Spain) as inside this axis (Schröder-Blair initiative with Germany, St. Malo with France). Trying to reshape the Franco-German axis into a Trilateral Body would be a dangerous step. Why?

First, because it does not take into account why the French-German motor was so widely accepted since the start of European integration: it was not felt as a directoire because other big countries (first Italy, later Britain) were not part of it. Because of this cohabitation of the Franco-German axis with a majority of EU members, including Britain and Italy, this axis was not experienced as something threatening, but as a genuine laboratory for new ideas and initiatives. A British place at the table would change this fundamentally. It would tear the EU apart into a bloc of the big and mighty and a bloc of the small(er) and weak, thereby jeopardizing the basis of the EU: the equality of its members.

Second, it would quickly create problems inside this Trilateral Body. The French-German tandem can only operate on the basis of a consensus. A third participant would make coalitions of two against one possible and render consensus more difficult. Instead of creating a European Security Council or a Trilateral Motor Britain should do better to continue its strategy of coalitions tous azimuts: with Spain and the Benelux to deepen the internal market, with the Scandinavian countries to enhance transparency, with new - pro Atlantic - member states as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to maintain the transatlantic link. These bilateral relations should also be developed with France (defence) and Germany (internal market), without crystallizing into a Trilateral Body. This would be disrupting. It would be against Europe's interests and - in the end - also against the interests of Britain.
(1 March 2002)

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