“What are we going to do to save the European project?” asked one correspondent recently. Having pondered this, I think the first step is to set out why we should seek to save it, and indeed advance it. On the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the last World War, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to why is one word – security.
Crudely, we are now at the point where global conflict has already started. We can kid ourselves all we like that the vicious religious wars of Iraq/Syria, Israel’s and Hamas’ brutality in the Holy Land, the takeover of Libya by Islamists and other purges are confined to the Middle East; and that the Crimean/Ukrainian conflict is down to one man’s posturing in Moscow; and that sectarian violence across the Sahara from South Sudan to Nigeria is just down to localised power struggles. In fact, they are a series of inter-connected religious and economic wars. When we add to them the near certainty of conflict in the Far East as China flexes its muscles and Japan weakens in economic (and thus political) influence, the ever-present risk of turmoil in the Americas, and even on-going civil and economic strife within the Eurozone and the United States, we need to be brutally realistic – the upturn in strife, conflict and war is an inevitability made so by a shift in economic balance and the (not coincidental) unwillingness and inability of the United States to play the role of sole global superpower and thus sole global policeman.
The UK also needs to be brutally realistic. It has endured a period of harsh economic decline and, again not coincidentally, has cut back its defence spending. Until recently the second largest spender on defence in the world, the UK will soon slip out of the top ten. This means its role as supporter to the world’s sole superpower is no longer viable, even if the United States were willing to play that role – which it isn’t. The UK’s influence now will depend more than ever on diplomatic weight – a weight it can carry uniquely as the bridge between North America and Europe.
Here is the point, however – it can only play that role by retaining its strong intelligence links with the United States while at the same time remaining firmly within the EU. What the UK is grappling with is a harsh realisation that its influence depends on remaining within an ever-integrating EU – and indeed on being a core part of that EU. In the ideal world it would not be faced with this conundrum – but then, in the ideal world Russia would not have a President playing war games, moderate Israelis would negotiate a two-state solution with a dominant Fatah, the United States would be able to afford to remain in Iraq to build democracy as it did in Germany and Korea, the EU would be able to retain some degree of law and order along the Sahara, and the West’s economy would be in much better shape. We should probably have worked out by now that this is no “ideal world”!
Let us deal again with brutal reality in this new, non-ideal, turbulent world. There are two outcomes – one is World War Three; the other is a new multi-power world where the United States begins to share its role as global policeman with other powers (just as it once did with the Soviet Union), delivering security through a series of compromises and deals around global security and trade. One of those other powers will surely be China (with Japan increasingly irrelevant); another will probably be India (although Pakistan and others will need some role); another may be Latin America (headed by Brazil); and, here is the thing, another will be Europe. That latter will in fact be the United States’ most trusted ally among the new Great Powers; as this happens, Henry Kissinger’s old question will apply – what is Europe’s phone number? The UK has a straight choice – it can either join the likes of Japan on the sidelines (costing it influence on security but also on trade, with real social and economic consequences) and leave Germany unquestionably the main player in that Europe; or it can seek to position itself as a main player in Europe and thus retain relevance as the focal point of a Transatlantic Alliance which it can use for its own security (as well as trade).
The biggest problem we have with the European debate in the UK at the moment is that it is appallingly parochial, and proceeds as if the world has stopped waiting for the UK to make its decision. On the contrary, the world is becoming a more polarised and more dangerous place in which the last thing we should want to do is retreat into insularity and irrelevance. Most of all, we all – each and every one of us – need to grasp and grasp quickly that this isn’t the ideal world, any more than it was this day 75 or 100 years ago!