The European Union looks more attractive when the alternative is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It isn’t a choice Britain has to make, which is one reason our Eurosceptics get away with fantastical depictions of Brussels as a conspiracy against democracy.
That is plainly not the view of many Ukrainians. President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an EU Association Agreement last November was the spur to the demonstrations that resulted last week in violent regime change. It isn’t clear what the nature of the new government in Kiev will be, nor whether it can represent those Ukrainians whose cultural allegiances steer them towards Moscow.
This is no fairy tale of pro-western democrats unseating easterly despotism. Yet it is also naive to pretend that Ukraine isn’t the rope in a strategic tug of war between an alliance of European democracies that respect the rule of law and Russia, which doesn’t. Ukraine’s insurgent administration will be bailed out by the EU or it will fail and Moscow will arrange for a client successor.
The first senior foreign dignitary to arrive in Kiev after Yanukovych’s fall was Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. Other nations might be proud that one of their compatriots led this vanguard mission. We barely noticed.
The top foreign-policy post in Brussels was granted to Britain’s nominee in 2009 in recognition of the country’s status as one of the Union’s big diplomatic beasts. It was also an investment by other EU members in Britain’s enduring participation in the project and an acknowledgment that refusal to join the single currency needn’t herald London’s relegation to second-tier status.
That spirit that has been repaid with a surge in national exceptionalism. Since 2010, the UK’s European policy has been dictated by Conservative MPs who are repelled by continental power-sharing, even when it has the effect of amplifying Britain’s voice in the world. The idea of cross-border collaboration as a source of strategic strength is fundamental to most member states’ understanding of what the EU is for and alien to British discussion of the topic.
On the eastern side of the continent, the attraction is obvious. EU membership brought prosperity, stability and security to former communist states. Their absorption in a few short years of European law was an act of collective bureaucratic heroism.
Britain’s stance as an eager advocate of enlargement created stores of diplomatic goodwill in the new member states. Those have since been depleted by Conservative ministers fomenting public fear of a welfare-snaffling eastern invasion, which is unfortunate given David Cameron’s inevitable reliance on countries such as Poland and Romania should his plans for EU reform ever come to a summit vote.
On that front, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic capital is currently all being spent on Germany. No butter was spared in the buttering up of Angela Merkel during her visit to the UK on 27 February. Downing Street has been talking up areas where the German Chancellor might be amenable to the kind of changes Cameron proposes, but those barely count as hors d’oeuvre on the menu of items from which Tory backbenchers expect their leader to order his new relationship with Brussels. There is no chance of Merkel or any other EU leader satisfying their appetite. The German chancellor doesn’t want Britain to leave the EU and will strive to help Cameron as long as doing so matches her own and her country’s interests. What she won’t do is sabotage other European alliances or alienate her domestic audience trying to appease Tory hardliners who she knows cannot be appeased and whose influence over British policy she finds exasperating.
Besides, Cameron may not be Prime Minister after May 2015. In private, German officials note that Merkel has no incentive to get too involved in a British “renegotiation” that becomes obsolete if Downing Street ends up under new management.
Beneath all of these tactical considerations is the bigger problem that Merkel has faith in a European project that transcends mercantile economics, while Cameron’s arms are twisted behind his back by people who believe Britain is traduced every time the EU’s ambitions stray beyond trade.
In practice, the Prime Minister, like all his recent predecessors, can see the strategic as well as the economic logic that keeps Britain in Europe. Also like his predecessors, he hides that insight from the public. As recently as December 2013, Cameron signed up to defence co-operation measures that risked being spun as community-spirited European integration. So he felt obliged to boast on the sidelines of the summit that he had rejected an EU army, for which no one had called, and preserved the primacy of Nato as the west’s foremost military alliance, which had never been in doubt.
The butchery of straw men has become a feature of British briefing in Brussels. It perpetuates the myth that Europeanism is something that other countries do to us if we drop our guard. Or, as Cameron put it with facile concision last June: “In this town you have to be ready for an ambush at any time and that means lock and load.”
But the PM cannot play the good European in private and the gun-slinging sceptic in public for much longer. It is weak diplomacy and self-defeating politics. Britain doesn’t want to lose strategic influence in Europe and for the foreseeable future, the EU is the club where mid-sized European democracies agglomerate into a global power. Angela Merkel knows it. Vladimir Putin knows it. A penniless mob of angry Ukrainians knows it. David Cameron knows it too: he just hopes to get through an election campaign without being forced to say it out loud.