By Marcel H. Van Herpen
Director of the Cicero Foundation
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY FOR BRITAIN?
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
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
(1 March 2002)
* The full text is available on www.cicerofoundation.org