Obama Bullying Could Backfire

A week ago, US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon warned of the dangers of a British referendum on its EU membership, none so subtly hinting that the Special Relationship would be diminished if Britain left the EU. 

Now, I have known Gordon for many years and, while I respect him greatly, he has long been the closest thing in DC to an EU groupie. Whilst Gordon did his best to choose his words carefully, it was hard to be sure if this was the US Government speaking or Phil Gordon.

What is clear is that a campaign is now underway to influence a very influenceable David Cameron ahead of his keynote speech on Europe which he will make later this month. Cameron simply does not get the huge strategic issues at stake. Gordon’s comments also imply a campaign by several foreign powers and some from within the Whitehall Establishment to deny the British people a voice on their future.

While some of what Gordon said makes sense, such as the need to keep the EU looking outward , the implication of his intervention is that the British people should be forced to accept a model of ‘Europe’ they have never wanted, never voted, for and never will want. It is a Europe in which the European nation-state will steadily be hollowed out and power transferred to an impossibly undemocratic and probably utterly unworkable Brussels Centre. This is something Gordon and his fellow Americans would never accept for Americans so why should we British be forced to accept it?

The Obama Administration must be very careful not to be seen to bully the British people over this matter. It would rightly be seen as a betrayal and would portend the end of the Special Relationship our two countries have shared for so long.

There are four reasons for this:

1. European Geopolitics: This is the most strategic of European moments. Behind the Euro-speak good old-fashioned European geopolitics are at work. Whilst modern, democratic Germany is vastly different to past Germany the impulse in Berlin to unify Europe around Germany remains and Washington is naive in the extreme if it thinks otherwise. By pulling the negotiating rug from under a weak prime minister’s feet the US has at a stroke prevented Britain from building a balancing coalition in Europe and thus play its traditional role as the balancer. Evidence of Realpolitik is apparent in Berlin’s repeated refusal to fully comply with the EU’s Services Directive critical to the hallowed Single Market in an area where the British are strong and Germany relatively weak. This is not German-bashing, simply strategic fact.

2. Bad Timing: Britain is not negotiating about its future in THIS EU; it is beginning to negotiate a position vis-a-vis the New EUrozone EU. This new EU will be built around Germany and created pretty swiftly (by EU standards) post-September and the German elections. The Obama Administration by making this very public and humiliating intervention at this critical moment has effectively cut the ground from under Cameron’s ‘definitive’ speech on Europe, now scheduled for 18 January in the Netherlands. The fact that Cameron is making this critical speech abroad and not in Britain speak volumes as does the fact he was forced to move the date by the Germans! A sign of things to come?

3.The Politics of the Moment: David Cameron is one of the least strategic prime ministers in British history and he needs all the help he can get to see the big strategic picture, craft policy from it and have the political courage to stick to it. Indeed, Cameron has wavered repeatedly over recent weeks depending on which group has spoken to him last. The Administration has critically undermined a key negotiating lever of an already weak prime minister by effectively forcing Cameron to abandon the Armageddon option; leaving the EU. There is now no pressure on Germany or others to agree to give Britain any concession now that Berlin believes it has the tacit backing of the US. Berlin also believes that sooner or later the British people will be forced to join a project an overwhelming majority have never wanted nor will ever want.

4. The Future: This EU is now all about Germany and the (understandable) German desire to pretend it is about ‘Europe’. The rest are either too weak or too broke to matter. This is the bottom of the strategic and political cycle for Britain which will in time recover some influence. Therefore, only Britain with US support can ensure an enduring political balance in Europe. Critically, there are those in Berlin keen for Britain to play just such a balancing and legitimising role. A sign of good faith would be for Berlin and Washington together to encourage Britain in such a role.

The bottom-line: The British are already the seoond biggest net contributors, with the EU costing the over-stretched British taxpayer £52 million a day, reinforced by an annual £52bn trading deficit with the EU. As such the relationship between British costs and British benefits in this EU is already dangerously unbalanced. As the German-centric EUrozone consolidates the bloc, it will inevitably act in unison reinforcing the economic imbalance with political fiat. Even with the so-called ‘treaty-lock’ (whereby any more shift of powers from London to Brussels automatically triggers a referendum) Britain will be cast into a permanent minority. Therefore, the only way for Britain to remain in the Union equitably over time is to negotiate now for a repatriation of powers in direct proportion to the German-led integration of Eurozone national powers that is about to happen.

Next Steps: The US should engage in quiet diplomacy to reinforce Britain’s position vis-a-vis Germany (and to some extent France) in the implicit (and not so implicit) European power politics. First, because Britain’s ancient liberties matter as much to Britons as America’s to Americans and for good reason. Second, because Britain has always rightly, distrusted Continental ‘grands dessins’ that focus so much power in so few hands via an utterly unaccountable and undemocratic Brussels. Such power gambits have never ended well in Europe. Therefore, the US must now make a very public commitment to ensuring that Britain’s interests and influence will be properly protected in the coming EUrozone. If not, Britain’s position will become untenable and in time no amount of American and German bullying will prevent Britain from leaving the new EU.

The Special Relationship would then be well and truly dead. This is about Britain’s long-term future; free-standing nation-state and American ally or province of a German-led, Brussels-administered EU or more taxation with even less representation. Now, there’s a delicious irony. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. Britain deserves better than that America.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council and of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay is a compilation of pieces that appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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