Is the United Kingdom, especially Britain, sick? For years, the media has called France the sick man of Europe, it appears that Britain has caught a similar cold. If France is facing dire economic conditions and is unable to implement real reforms launching the economic engine once and for all, Britain has for its part disappeared from the European and international stage. Britain is on election mode and these elections are serious for the future of Britain and its future within the European Union. Because Britain has fallen from the table of relevance, the general European public is unaware of them. May 7th will be a big day for Britain, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.
The election is being disputed between seven candidates. The two main candidates belong to the two big parties: conservative led by Prime Minister David Cameron; and the Labor led by Ed Miliband. The others are from smaller parties, which have nevertheless shaped the debate, like the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland, the Greens, and UK Independence Party (UKIP). These smaller parties may not produce the next Prime Minister, but “could hold the balance of power in the next Parliament, making government policy subject to negotiation.” The expectation is to see either Miliband or Cameron winning the popular vote. So far, the campaign has revolved around the following three issues: the economy, health care, and immigration.
Risk-Aversion or Pessimistic Isolationism?
Since the election of Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 Britain has lost some of its grandeur and relevance. Just on foreign and defense policy, Britain has disappeared from
the international arena. From a mid-size power to a small power, Britain lost its appetite for international relevance and action. The turning point was the no vote by the Parliament for a military intervention in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad in August 2013. Since then, Prime Minister Cameron has just looked inward and tried to clean up the house letting foreign affairs aside. Ed Miliband, Labor Party Leader, has described Cameron’s foreign policy of “pessimistic isolationism,” and for electoral purposes argued that Cameron has “weakened Britain.”
In terms of foreign policy, Britain has been a no-show on really important issues like Ukraine (France and Germany signed the Minsk agreement with Russia), on sanctions against Russia, on Libya, on the migration crisis, on Africa, on fighting ISIS in Syria and Libya and so forth. Britain is only assisting the US on bombing ISIS in Iraq. In Africa, Britain is barely assisting the French in the mission in Mali and has expressed very limited interests in fighting Boko Haram. The absence of Britain and Cameron on dealing with Putin and Russia over the question of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has been damaging to the credibility of the country and the EU on trying to solve serious regional crises.
One reason for such risk-aversion by Britain is the Iraq and Afghan campaigns. The costs on going to war in Iraq with the Americans in 2003 are still being felt. Then the mission in Afghanistan lasted over a decade and Britain does not want anymore to get drag down in another foreign campaign with no success at the end, which Syria and Libya could very much be. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has not been able to justify the size and length of both missions and the population has grown opposed to another foreign intervention.
Letting your Allies down
The US is now extremely worried about the future of the ‘special relationship.’ Britain may tend to believe that the ‘special relationship’ is set in stone, but like any relationship, without discussion and connection they tend to dry out and die. Britain cannot expect the US to be its closest ally when Britain does not reciprocate. Maybe the British leadership believes that all GOP candidates ought to pass by London in order to be presidential, but so far none of them has been successful at it – recall McCain and Romney – and a talk in London by a non-elected and/or elected official in his personal capacity does not make up for the core of the ‘special relationship.’ Additionally, the US saw the move by the Foreign Office to decide to make Britain a founding member of Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a competitor of the World Bank, as some sort of backstabbing. France, Italy, and Germany have followed the UK on this policy-choice.
For France and Europe, an inward looking Britain is a real concern as well. France and Britain have certainly a long past fighting one another, but there is one core dimension wherein Paris and London see eye to eye: defense and foreign policies. European defense was created, functioned and has deepened thanks to the Franco-British couple. The Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) was established ensuing the 1998 bilateral Saint-Malo meeting. Since the disappearance of Britain on common defense questions, France has become anxious. For instance, top French expert, Camille Grand of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique argued in the New York Times that “We in Paris understand that Germany is a complicated partner on defense, but the assumption is that Britain is a like-minded country ready to intervene, would spend enough on defense and remain a nuclear weapons state. All this is being challenged, and it makes Paris feel lonely.” Despite some historical and cultural divergences, Paris and London have always shared a common acute sense of foreign affairs and valued their cooperation in foreign, security and defense policies.
So Long Britain?
Britain is an interesting European case for two reasons: first, the raison d’être of its political class has become so anti-European that it goes against its national interest; second, there is no long-term vision for Britain in interacting with Europe and the world.
Britain must for once and for all accept its role and place within the European Union. If it wants to leave, the referendum ought to be implemented and the country will adjust accordingly towards a Brexit or not (see the short video above). But having Britain being so anti-European and
blocking any initiatives (against the CAP, against a large common budget, against police and judiciary cooperation, against the Schengen agreement, and so on) in Brussels is counter-productive for Britain, the EU, and the 28 EU Member States. For instance, having London fighting for the increase of the budget of Operation Triton is counterproductive. The perpetual fear of lost of sovereignty and stripping away British independence cannot last any longer. A balance ought to be found between anti-EU and constructive bargaining.
Second, the British political class, as its French counterpart, is composed of visionless politicians. There is no long-term vision for their respective countries with serious political, economic, social and financial agendas. There are only bureaucrats seeking for perpetual reelection at great cost for the country. Hopefully, the May 7th elections will allow British citizens and politicians to reflect on the role of Britain in Europe and the world. This is only wishful thinking, as in reality the general election appears to be another wasted opportunity for a clear national reflection on Britain’s future.