British diplomatic failure and its consequences for Europe

In the UK, the country’s self-marginalization is big news. In most of the rest of the world, not so much. It seems observers based in the US are mostly talking about the impossibility of the deal working and the Europeans are preoccupied with the imponderables of their new fiscal architecture. But in the history of the EU, it should be regarded as big news.

For decades, the EU has enjoyed a balance in which, when two of its three big countries are agreed on some agenda, the third is off preparing an alternative and rounding up oppositional coalitions. For most of the last two decades, the dominant axis was Germany-UK, and the agenda microeconomic liberalization (it was called a growth or competitiveness agenda, but it usually produced neither). The opposition was France, which had to be content with small achievements such as demoting the value of “competition” in the Lisbon Treaty or getting a French citizen named Internal Markets Commissioner.

You don’t have to like the ideas coming out of France, or Germany, or the UK, to appreciate the value of an alternative in politics. In the current crisis, all the action has been driven by Germany, with France occasionally wrangling a softening in the German position. The alternatives to the German government- a coalition of conservatives and eurosceptic liberals- have been missing in action.

Britain has had wonderful privileges in Europe because it put in the effort to identify the framing strategies and coalitions that make its interests look good to others. People think Thatcher banged on the table and got a rebate, but what is much more common is the UK building interesting coalitions, with Scandinavians when they don’t want welfare harmonization, with Germany when they want open markets in goods, with Luxembourg when they don’t want tax harmonization, etc.

This year, the UK completely blew it. Where were many of the preparatory negotiations? Dinners of the European People’s Party, the transnational party formation that Cameron quit in a crowd-pleasing move to attract hardline Tories. Where was Cameron while the deal was being assembled? His child’s Nativity play. When did the UK formulate its objectives? Hours before the meeting. What were the objectives? Things Cameron was sure he could get and trumpet at home (apparently he thinks protecting bankers will thrill his electorate). The UK had talked briefly about trying to construct a non-Euro coalition, but redefined that coalition’s interests to be those of a few City trading desks. Predictably  unlikely to excite Swedes or Romanians- who were apparently never canvassed because the government took too long to start formulating its agenda. Hardly surprising given the euroscepticism of the Tories and the tactical focus of this government, of course.

And that is how Cameron, having abandoned any bigger strategy, could choose symbolic goals that he knew he could get, and then fail to get them. According to Reuters, he managed to turn a room full of people who must have been seething at Germany into a hostile block opposed to him. Diplomatic fail.

How would Europe look right now if there were an alternative to the theological ordoliberalism of the German government? If the interests of non-Eurozone countries were represented as a bloc last week? If the French could have negotiated with the Germans knowing that there was an alternative plan available? Probably a lot better.

The deal, if it works, will turn Mediterranean Europe into a giant mezzogiorno, and, if it doesn’t work, will give us an new and worse crisis. It’s tempting to imagine that even the UK – even the UK!- outside the Eurozone and all, might have been able to catalyze better.

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About scottlgreer

Associate Professor, Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. I am a specialist in the health politics and welfare states of of advanced industrial countries, with a special research focus on the politics of the UK, France, Spain and the European Union.
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