Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague turned up in
Kiev on March 3, stating that the situation in Ukraine is the biggest European
crisis of the 21st century. Historians can argue about whether Britain realized
that too late, or better late than never. Because by March 4, Russian President
Vladimir Putin already seemed to have achieved the optimal level of Western
humiliation without over-extending his position: He had done enough to make his
point about Russian influence in the Ukraine by sending troops into Crimea, but
avoided any genuinely tough Western response, which a full-on invasion of eastern
Ukraine might have triggered.
Britain played no significant role in the earlier
revolutionary phase of Ukraine's crisis. On Feb. 19, the pivotal day on which
several Ukrainian protesters were shot dead in Kiev, the ceasefire was brokered
by the Polish, German, and French foreign ministers who flew into the city.
But the story here is bigger than Britain's absence at
the key moment in this European crisis. British relegation to the backseat of
European foreign policy in Kiev is the result of two decades of progressively
more powerful euro-skepticism in the United Kingdom, which is now influential
enough to risk British isolation and international irrelevance -- a
It's non-role in Kiev stands in stark contrast to the
U.K.'s central position in European foreign policy when the Berlin Wall fell in
1989, and in backing the subsequent eastward expansion of the European Union.
Thus Ukraine's crisis tells us as much about Britain's overall relationship
with Europe as it does about Russia's: The Euromaidan revolutionaries wrote in
blood on Kiev's streets that they wanted to face West, and that Europe was
something that mattered. Back in little England, the dominance of the
introspective euro-skeptic understanding of "European" issues ensured that
Britain was in its own world when the real world came knocking.
In February, the central European issue for the U.K.
was not Ukraine. It was whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel would back
British Prime Minister David Cameron's demand that the EU's 28 member states,
representing 500 million citizens, radically reform its laws to suit the U.K.,
or else face the threat of an in-or-out referendum on the country's EU
membership in 2017. For non-fantasists, the chancellor's refusal to endorse
Cameron's demand during her visit to London on Feb. 27 was a statement of the
obvious.The euro-skeptics tell us that Britain would be more powerful alone,
that the EU is holding the country back. But they don't get that globalization
means small states need to scale up to have international influence: The picture
of the U.K. alone, punching above its weight outside of the EU, is not
inaccurate, just partial -- because it fails to illustrate how when Britain
throws punches outside its weight class, it often misses and get punched back
in the face.
Consider, for example, September 2013, when Britain
took the most aggressive diplomatic position of any Western country on air
strikes in Syria, then backed out. After Putin's spokesman jumped on that to
call Britain "just a small island... no one pays any attention to them," Cameron wheeled out a story about Britain's
extensive soft power, which simply missed the point. Just because you support
Manchester United, or provide in your contract for arbitration in London under
English law, it does not mean you will swim alongside the British government
when it wades into the turbulent waters of international realpolitik (this is my full view on U.K. soft-power).
The U.K. should get back in the front seat of the EU
to wield an amplified international influence. The alternative is international
isolation, a view represented most vocally by the increasingly popular U.K.
Independence Party (UKIP), which should really call itself the U.K. Irrelevance
At the very least, if Britain's euro-skeptics want to
get attention by threatening to jump out from the back seat, perhaps they should
not distract the drivers at the very moment they may have more pressing issues on
the road ahead -- like, for example, the sovereign fate of the Ukraine.
British euro-skeptics come in two kinds. The majority,
like Cameron, want reform of the EU, especially to cut red tape and more
clearly demark areas of national and supra-national policy, particularly in
relation to social issues and immigration, welfare "benefits tourism," and protectionist
agricultural policy. Their views are sensible, and I agree with many of their
aims, but their strategy is wrong: to get what
they want, the U.K. needs to move to leadership at the center of the EU, not
threaten ineffectually from the sidelines.
Then we have the hard-liners who genuinely want the U.K.
to leave the EU. The zealots among them turn every domestic political discourse
into tedious sermons on the minutiae of EU directives (which are inevitably
referred to as Diktats). They need to
move on from 1945: Britain has not been a global power for decades, due to the
collapse of the British Empire, the massive debt burden of two world wars, and
a primary focus on the welfare over the warfare state; it is not because of the
country's membership of the EU since 1973.
Hard-line euro-skepticism itself includes
substantially different positions that are ultimately contradictory, exposing
the underlying conceptual fragility of the movement. On the one hand, we have
those within UKIP, for example, whose alternative to the EU is little England.
This is an isolationist position dismissive of British internationalism. On the
other hand, we have those hardliners, especially in Cameron's own Conservative
Party, who want Britain to leave the EU in order to become a deregulated,
independent, free-wheeling global power. The fundamental problem this latter
group has is in explaining how a literally independent Britain would deal with globalization
without ceding any state sovereignty.
That Britain on its own has the negotiating power to
get the same terms from trade agreements as the EU can, by making big-ticket
deals with China or the United States, is simply ridiculous. And what would
happen to U.K. trade with the EU single market -- by far the biggest destination for U.K. goods -- if Britain left
the union? Britain would need to
comply with EU regulations anyway, but from outside Brussels, it would have no
say over their content.
The tradition of electing hard-line euro-skeptics to
be members of the European Parliament (MEPs) already diminishes British sway
over EU regulations, given they have no interest in making the legislative
process in Brussels work. For example, Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader and a sitting
MEP, did not attend a single meeting of the fisheries
committee between February 2010 and December 2012; this rather undermines the
credibility of the promises he made to those who elected him to
reform EU fishing policy, but does suggest that he was right to refer to his
own campaign manifesto's pledges as "drivel".
Farage rants against the bureaucrats in Brussels
for being gray, boring, and unaccountable; a sort of Satan in clerk's clothing.
He misses the point that this is what Brussels is supposed to be: an administrative center, the chief function of
which is to produce legislation that harmonizes standards in a vast range of
sectors across the biggest single market in the world, and to coordinate
national efforts on complex issues like climate change. He is right to question
accountability, but he has no moral claim to do so himself, since the EU's accountability
system is based on MEPs actually turning up to work.
To take part in globalization today, Britain either
needs to be part of a wider bloc, or to operate as a global hub. Being in a
bloc means that, to influence regional and global issues according to its
interests, the U.K., like any other state, gives away some sovereignty by
binding itself to the obligations flowing from the multilateral treaties that
underpin a group, be it the EU, U.N.,
NATO, or the World Trade Organization. Conversely, through the global hub option,
huge deregulation allows some small states to trade a national for an amorphous
international identity, along the lines of Singapore or Hong Kong; but this is
a radical sovereign arrangement that most British people would not want. If the
hard-line euro-skeptics want the U.K. to become a larger version of west
London, where most British citizens were priced out of the housing market long
ago by international buyers, so be it. But in so far as many euro-skeptics seem
to want both a little England and a Dubai-on-Thames, their views are
There has already been extensive commentary on how
Cameron's appeal to Scotland on Feb. 7 not to vote
to leave the U.K. in its September independence referendum mirrors the language
of those in the EU who want the U.K. to stay, and so implicitly contradicts
Cameron's own public position vis-à-vis Europe: "It's about what we, the
constituent parts of the U.K., can achieve together. The power of
collaboration. Together we're stronger at getting out there and selling
our products to the world."
To be sure, Cameron's personal position on the EU
isn't precisely clear. He has given hints that he does not himself want Britain
to leave the EU, especially to Scottish audiences, within which many see
potential exclusion from the EU as a major factor in favor of staying in the U.K.:
"Last year we were the top destination for foreign direct investment in Europe,"
Cameron said on Feb. 7. "That is a stamp of approval on our stability -- and
I would not want to jeopardize that."
Yet Cameron's misguided strategy to reform the EU has
now trapped him in a position in which he cannot publicly back those who oppose
the U.K. leaving the EU because his leverage depends on the credibility of that
threat. He adopted the strategy in the first place to placate (unsuccessfully) hard-line
euro-skeptics in his own party, who are worried about UKIP taking their votes.
(UKIP is currently polling close or slightly ahead of the Conservative Party for
the May 2014 EU elections, but behind the Labour Party).
And why is the UKIP getting popular support? The
answer, to my mind, is again globalization. Figures released in late February showed
that the U.K.'s coalition government will miss its immigration targets, in
terms of people let in to the country,
possibly by hundreds rather than tens of thousands. Farage responded by stating
that immigration is the "biggest issue in British politics." Some of those who
vote for UKIP may agree with him on xenophobic grounds; Farage regaled his party conference last week by
telling them how uncomfortable he was "sitting in a train full of foreigners"
on the way down. But the reality is that many of UKIP's constituency are not
xenophobes and only see immigration as Britain's most central political issue
insofar as it is a pressing economic reality for those competing for jobs with
hard-working EU immigrants.
The problem with UKIP's argument is that leaving the
EU would not stop the forces of globalization, as the U.K. would have no option
but to open up to the world, given that it has a service-based economy, or sink
under the weight of its gigantic public debt, which, contrary to public
perception, has doubled under the current coalition
government. The argument that the U.K. could trade with the "New Commonwealth"
and Asia, and maintain hard restrictions on the mobility of those places'
citizens into the U.K., is implausible. Look at Switzerland (not in the EU),
which UKIP often uses as a model: Because of its necessarily
international-facing economy, foreigners there make up 23 percent of the population.
Beyond immigration, the U.K. will experience the
effect of free markets in a globalized world whether that is mediated through
the EU or not. And what those forces of globalization are creating, especially
through competition, the rise of mobile international elites, and the
accumulation of capital into increasingly narrow tranches of national
populations, are increasingly unequal societies. Thus the Financial Times recently described a new middle-class division in the
U.K. between the "über-middle" of lawyers, bankers, etc. and "cling-ons" of
salaried professionals like engineers and academics, who struggle to maintain
the living standards their parents experienced. The old working class is not
The fact that UKIP is taking votes from across the
political spectrum is a testament to how wanting to be in, or out, of
globalization on a given policy issue in many instances is a more important
axis of political affiliation in the U.K. today than the old categories of
right and left.
British politicians have not been sufficiently candid
with the public about the nature of contemporary globalization. The U.K. cannot
opt out of it, so the country is likely to see a significant increase in social
inequality in the decades to come, whether it belongs to the EU or not. That
means UKIP massively oversells the reality of what its voters would get if Britain
disassociated itself from Brussels.
The key forces that will affect the social cohesion of
the U.K. in decades to come are external, and the country cannot influence them
as a lone power. On the foreign policy front, to have influence, the U.K. needs
to be in Europe's front seat, not dozing in the back when the next Kiev happens.
Britain must not shut its eyes to globalization and
sleepwalk into insignificance. It should stay in the EU -- with its
imperfections -- and lead from the front.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images