Age of the superstate

Britain and Europe: the choices we face

Edited by Martin Rosenbaum <em>Oxford University Press, 30

Now that electoral distractions are out of the way, Tony Blair has to confront the central challenge of his prime ministership - how to get Britain into the euro. He obviously wants to meet it. He knows there is no future for this country outside the EU, and that there is no point in belonging to the EU without also belonging to the euro. Almost certainly correctly, he thinks he can win a referendum, and he realises that time is running out. Assuming that he does win, the long, miserable battle over post-imperial Britain's relationship with the European mainland will be at an end. The hard-core Eurosceptic fringe will linger on, but it will no longer count politically. If the Conservatives stick with Euroscepticism, they will exclude themselves from power, and even from influence; if they abandon it (as seems more probable, given the Tory party's historic instinct for survival), Euroscepticism will dwindle into a neo-Jacobite rump.

For the first time in nearly 30 years, there is, in fact, a real chance that Britain is about to escape from the half-in, half-out euro limbo to which we have consigned ourselves for the political lifetimes of most members of the present cabinet. This opens up an extraordinary political opportunity. At the same time, it poses a formidable intellectual and cultural challenge. Behind the arcane manoeuv-rings that have followed the Nice summit looms a historic question. Over the next half-century, there is bound to be an end to the geopolitical imbalance that followed the collapse of communism and the emergence of the United States as the world's only remaining superpower. China and probably India will become global players, challenging the supremacy of the United States as the US and imperial Germany challenged British supremacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (A resurgent Russia, probably reunited with Belorussia and Ukraine, may join China and India in that role, but this does not affect the argument.) The question for the European Union, which is economically powerful yet still politically feeble, is whether it is content to remain a bystander in this emerging multipolar geopolitical system, or whether it, too, can develop the capacity and will to become a player.

The post-Nice debate now taking place on the Continent has to be seen in this context. It is not a debate between supranationalists and intergovernmentalists, as some British commentators imagine. It is a debate about how best to create a greater capacity for political action in the context of an enlargement that threatens to dilute still further the inadequate capacity that currently exists. Understandably, in view of the German Federal Republic's astonishing success in laying to rest the ghosts of its past, the answer is to construct a federal Europe on Germanic lines. The French are uneasy about that, but not because they are intergovernmentalists in the British sense of the word. They, too, are supranationalists: they merely want a different form of supranationalism, more in tune with French traditions. Intergovernmentalism, as the British have historically understood it, is not a runner. It is a recipe for indefinite political stagnation, and no serious Continental politician wants that.

So long as Britain remains outside the euro, self-excluded from the most important element in the European project, it cannot expect to have much influence on the European debate. A post-referendum Britain, whose citizens had made a conscious decision to join the euro, and whose European credentials were at last beyond dispute, would be an altogether different proposition. Potentially at least, such a Britain would occupy a pivotal position in EU politics. With the laurels of a referendum victory on his brow, Blair could become the leading head of government in Europe. The only proviso is that he would have to offer a vision of Europe capable of meeting the needs of the 21st century. This does not mean that Britain could make Europe in its own image. Europe cannot be a substitute for the British empire, as some Tory Europhiles fantasised 40 years ago. But to use John Major's now famous cliche, it does mean that Britain would have a chance to be at the heart of Europe, in a sense that has not been true since the end of the First World War.

Against that background, the pieces that Martin Rosenbaum has brought together in this book make dismal reading. This is not Rosenbaum's fault. His purpose, he tells us, was to "cover the full range of opinion, from those who want a federal Europe to those who want to withdraw from the EU"; and this, broadly speaking, is what he has done. The trouble is that the British debate - which almost all his authors, even the Continental ones, take as their frame of reference - is currently as tedious and unimaginative as it is provincial. The unspoken assumption underlying this debate is that the European Union is a static entity to which a static Britain may or may not adhere; that the world will obligingly stand still while the British make up their minds what to do, and then go on as before. The dynamics of the emerging geopolitical system, the opportunities and threats that will sooner or later be posed by the inevitable decline of the United States, and the corresponding need to construct a European polity fit for the next half-century, hardly figure in the debate. Blair's enticing Warsaw phrase - "a superpower, but not a superstate" - epitomises its inadequacies. Statehood is a precondition of power in the international arena. That is why the post-colonial Americans abandoned the doomed experiment of confederation and became a federation instead. Now, more than ever, the question for Europe is not whether to become a superstate, but what kind of superstate to be and how to get from here to there. I still think that, once the Eurosceptic boil has been lanced by a successful referendum campaign, the British political class will grow out of provincialism and start to answer that question. But, on the evidence of this book, it has a mountain to climb.

David Marquand's The New Reckoning: capitalism, state and citizens is available from Polity Press

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England