Britain adrift or Britain prescient?

By Ken Feltman

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says that Prime Minister David Cameron’s veto of the European Union treaty changes designed to save the Euro is “bad for Britain” and could leave the United Kingdom “isolated and marginalised.” Clegg heads the Liberal Democrats and is considered more pro-European than Cameron, the Conservative Party leader.

Because the Conservatives did not get an absolute majority of seats in Parliament in the last election, they had to include the Lib Dems in their governing coalition. Generally, the coalition has functioned well. But the ambitious Clegg sees an opening: He believes that the British people see their future as part of the European alliance.

Did coalition politics in Britain lead to a veto in Brussels?

Many members of the Conservative Party disagree and Cameron must be mindful of the Euro-skeptics in his midst, just as Clegg must listen to the pro-Europe faction within his party. I forecast the now-revealed split on November 22 in The European Autumn.

Meanwhile, reaching across the Atlantic…

While the news coverage is about Greece or Italy, Spain or France, and whether to allow defaulting countries to remain in the eurozone, people at think tanks and institutes in the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Canada are beginning to talk again about an old and often-abandoned idea: Stronger ties of unification between the U.K. and her former North American colonies. Discussions of this type seldom get beyond the talk stage, of course, and last heated up about 30 years ago, only to die out as the EU took form.

The British who met with their ideological counterparts in Washington last week had an interesting message: We notice that the U.S. is once again looking across the Pacific for partners and alliances. Why not look again across the Atlantic? This may be the last chance before the U.K., the U.S. and Canada settle into other long-term relationships.

The pot will stir more as the agreement worked out in Brussels last week is studied. What strikes me – and I could be wrong – is that the agreement (probably unintentionally) will put Germany at the head of an economic union that may begin to freeze in place the role of the 26 European nations agreeing to the pact. As often seen with European treaties, France appears to occupy the “keystone” position: If at some future point, France becomes unhappy, Germany will have to accommodate the French concerns or the whole agreement may unravel.

Germany gave up more than any other country to put together the proposed Brussels agreement. Germany is the economic engine that Europe must have to succeed. Chancellor Angela Merkel has demonstrated consummate political skills in balancing internal German concerns and the needs of Europe. But German leadership also raises old concerns that are not yet far enough in the past to be forgotten, or even ignored. The ghosts of Europe’s past may cause the UK to draft westward in search of a more amenable alliance.

Where is France when needed?

Thus far, France – with that keystone position – has not risen to the occasion and mediated with Britain and Germany. The Germans cannot do that alone. This is France’s moment, just as the past several months have been moments for German leadership. But President Nicolas Sarkozy showed his frustration and created an awkward moment when he ignored Cameron as the leaders gathered after Cameron’s announcement that he could not support the agreement.  

The British will not join any agreement that puts the Germans in the leadership position. The British will not join any agreement that puts France is a superior position. Old balance-of-power politics is on display. This is about national egos as well as the egos of particular politicians. This is typically European.

Meantime, apparently those Britons who want a closer economic relationship with Canada and the United States are rumored to have presented their ideas to sympathetic politicians in Mexico. This is very British: (1) Exercise power in Europe by finding and exploiting those divisions to achieve and maintain a position of influence, even power; (2) Seek influence outside Europe to supplement British power within Europe.

The British are not amateurs at politics. They are where and what they are because they are very good at it. Everyone else should take note of the British uncertainty about the eurozone and the European Union.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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