To an outsider here in Brussels, Britain’s stance toward Europe is utterly incomprehensible. Like it or not, the European Union is the largest market in the world, while the unification process has ensured that, for the first time in our continent’s history, war is just a distant memory of the past, not a bleak prospect for the future. Take every issue that really matters to our troubled world, from environmental protection to human rights, democracy and peace, and you will see that Europe is a global leader and a prominent force for good. True, Europe’s response to the economic crisis has been weak, to say the least, while its decision-making system is broken, but the same could be argued for the American political system, following the dramatic negotiations on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling. Does this mean that the US is also beyond salvation?
The UK could play a leading role in the process of reforming and strengthening the EU, possibly the leading role. There are several reasons for that: First of all, it could capitalize on its close relationships with all the Eastern European countries, since Britain was the main advocate of the enlargement process, and the new member states have not forgotten that. Second, Britain could find strong allies among the traditionally market-friendly open economies of Scandinavia. Moreover, the so-called “capital of Europe” has already become Anglophone, and French diplomats and journalists alike complain that their language has been completely marginalized in Brussels. Paris has its own structural and competitiveness problems, and it is very likely that French influence in Europe will wane over time. Finally, due to historical reasons, the peoples of Europe have a natural aversion to German dominance, while Berlin has so far been reluctant to assume a hegemonic role in Europe. Do the headcount and you will see that the balance of power in Brussels could easily turn in London’s favor. Indeed, in the medium term, Britain could even challenge Germany’s place as “first among equals” in Europe.
But under the Conservatives, the UK has already given up on this prospect, almost as if this economic and political giant right on its shores didn’t exist. No matter what Prime Minister David Cameron says in his Europe speech this Friday, the ugly truth is that for diplomats, lobbyists and the media in Brussels, the UK has not just failed to capitalize on its potential, but has already assumed an “observer status” in the EU. Many European journalists just don’t care about the British briefings ahead of EU summits, because the UK’s voice at these summits is rarely ever heard. According to some diplomats, Cameron looks “bored” (!) in the meetings with the leaders of the largest economic bloc in the world. The countries of the so-called “White Commonwealth” (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) cannot rely anymore on Britain to defend their interests in Europe, because Britain’s political influence is diminishing at a speed no one ever expected. Even more worrying are the data from the HR departments of the EU. Over the last four years, the number of British technocrats and executives promoted to senior European posts has dropped to almost zero. According to some accounts, the number of new recruits in the European institutions from Britain has decreased by almost 60 percent and it now almost equals the number of Estonian nationals. Britain has already said so many nos and asked for so many opt-outs that soon no one will care in Brussels whether it stays or goes. This obsession with “repatriating” powers from Europe is also incomprehensible, given the fact that most of the important issues today – from cybercrime to trade – require a regional or global approach, and the traditional nation state looks like a parochial structure for tackling them.
Sure, Cameron is right that if Britain leaves the EU, it won’t collapse. It will still be a large economy. But compared to the giants of the East, the US and the eurozone, it will be relegated to the “second division” of economic powerhouses. True, it will still be a nuclear power. But so is Pakistan. It will still have a special relationship with the United States. But Washington has made it clear that it wants its closest ally to have a say in Brussels. It will still have the Commonwealth of allies. But to these nations, Britain will be of little diplomatic use outside the EU.
I understand that Britons are islanders and have their own ways. But contrary to the urban myths and outright lies of the British yellow press, the EU has never asked them to start driving on the right, drink in liters instead of pints, change their pubs for bistros, and measure distance in kilometers instead of miles. Britain is deeply European in what really matters – its respect for the rule of law, democracy, and those inalienable rights that define human dignity.
The future of Britain in Europe will of course be decided by its people, and its government. But since I have lived, studied and worked in this country for six years, and grown to love it as a second homeland, I feel obliged to say that the Conservative backbenchers are pushing it toward a monumental diplomatic and political error of unimaginable proportions. Europe also stands to lose so much, as without Britain it will become even more bureaucratic, inward-looking and rigid.
My apartment in Athens was next to the Allied cemetery. Every day, its views reminded me that when darkness befell our continent, Britain defended it at a great cost. Today, Britain can lead the way toward a more dynamic, transparent, prosperous and accountable Europe, in a world where the balance of power is rapidly shifting to the East. Future generations will never forgive those who ignored the call of logic, and instead led their country into irrelevance.
* Nikos Chrysoloras is Kathimerini’s correspondent in Brussels