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10.04.09

We should all be worried about David Cameron, not just the Foreign Office

The Foreign Office is worried about David Cameron, apparently. It is “most concerned about the effects Cameron’s anti-EU European policy will have on the UK’s chances of effecting outcomes”, the Guardian claims. Labour Councillor Bob Piper has also spotted this claim reported on the Sky News website.

We should all share the concerns of the Foreign Office. It is only in and through the EU that the UK can best serve our national interests and values. Bizarrely, Tory MEP Roger Helmer describes it as “indefensible, humiliating and wrong” that David Cameron has not yet fulfilled a promise to form a new grouping in the European Parliament with other parties that have been described as “openly and unashamedly racist and homophobic”. This promise suggests an inability to understand modern British values, let alone take them forward within the EU.

Cameron’s stance has also infuriated key allies, like Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy, at a time when EU policy co-ordination is imperative. We have been rightly much warned of late of the dangers of beggar-thy-neighbour economic policies. But most people would have less regard for their neighbours if they were racists and homophobes. Indeed, many would have to be really desperate just to pop round to borrow some coffee; never might discuss the right balance between protection for workers, which globalisation requires if it is not to collapse amid charges of unfairness, and protectionism, which retards globalisation but which forms of protection can amount to.

Beggar-thy-neighbour outcomes are dangers in spheres other than the narrowly economic. For example, we are often told that without extra capacity at Heathrow the UK’s competitiveness will erode as compared with other European countries that are expanding their major airports. So, EU countries currently face a choice between the “unpalatable and the disastrous” – J. K. Galbraith’s definition of politics: either they seek to control a major source of carbon or they become less competitive. The only real decision, therefore, is over which of these outcomes they consider unpalatable and which disastrous.

This is rather a zero sum game. You either take a hit to your competitiveness in the short-term or you suffer climate change over the long-term. But all countries will experience climate change, whether they now seek to control airline emissions or not. Thus, countries face an incentive to free ride, expand their airports and bite the bullet of climate change along with everyone else when it comes. After all, “in the long run, we are all dead”. Climate change gives this famous line from J. M. Keynes an even darker twist.

But couldn’t a pan-EU agreement on airport expansion allow us to escape this? The devil would be in the detail of such an agreement, as ever, though there must, at least, be potential for EU policy co-ordination on airport expansion to achieve superior outcomes to those which the present zero sum game is producing. However, it is doubtful that such topics are discussed at the National Front Disco or wherever it is that David Cameron hangs out. Nor is the need for improved European leadership likely to be a hot subject in this bastion of little Englanderism.

The Economist well illustrates the need for this leadership. “Consider the three big requests that Mr Obama made during his European tour: for more help in Afghanistan; for more fiscal stimulus; and for Europe to become more serious about energy security (ie, buy more non-Russian gas). Almost nothing was offered on the first and third, and the G20 conclusions papered over lingering transatlantic differences on stimulus plans and financial regulation. And Mr Obama also earned a public rebuke from Mr Sarkozy for strongly backing Turkish membership of the EU, which the French president opposes”.

Three things are clear. First, while Obama may have been the President that all of Europe wanted, his requests to Europe are closer to British agendas than to those of our EU partners. Our commitment to Afghanistan is witnessed in the troops we have deployed to Helmand – a commitment which George Robertson is right to chide other EU countries for not matching. We recognise the geo-strategic importance of Turkey in a way that other EU countries seem to struggle to. We see the unhealthy grip which Russian gas has upon the continent and want to avoid this fate for ourselves. And we, unlike others in the EU, are up for as much fiscal stimulus as we can afford.

Second, under Obama, the weight that Washington attaches to London will be positively correlated with the weight that London carries in Brussels. It shouldn’t be too hard for us to argue in Brussels for causes favoured by Obama because we too favour these causes; the more effectively that we do so, the stronger our relations with Obama’s America. The transatlantic relationship remains a key component of British influence on the global stage, but this relationship is now more bound up with our European relations than ever before at a time when the main fault line in global politics is to be found in the Pacific, not the Atlantic. This is the way of this Chinese century.

Third, in this context, Cameron threatens British marginalisation on the global, as well as the European stage. This is the exact opposite of what we now need. In fact, it is indefensible, humiliating and wrong. We shouldn’t forget this when we vote in June’s EU elections.