Alphen, Netherlands. 27 December. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has something of the night about him. With the Germans about to lead the seventeen EUrozone countries into the greatest political leap in the dark since the creation of the European Union Schaeuble has suggested that the British people be denied a referendum on their future relationship with a future German-led EU. It would cause “uncertainty” he said. Even Schaeuble’s use of language speaks of another age. In a 23rd December interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung Schaeuble said, “Our British friends are not dangerous”. Why even use such language?
What worries Schaeuble is a speech British PR-Meister David Cameron is scheduled to make in January in which he will offer Britons a 2015 referendum…of sorts. Schaeuble should not be worried. According to Whitehall insiders Cameron as per usual is going to duck the real issues. The choice on offer will be between doing nothing (status quo) or asking the impossible (that all EU member-states will agree to a limited repatriation of powers from Brussels to London). Much EU about nothing.
Europe has always ‘worked’ by give and take. The British ‘give’ was to agree not to block German-led moves towards the creation a European Banking Authority and thus tacitly accept deeper EUrozone integration. The ‘take’ should have been a Germany that accepts Britons must now consider the only question now left to them; to be part of Germany’s new EU or not. Sadly, Herr Schaeuble’s intervention points to the very undemocratic and autocratic future many Britons object to and again underlines Cameron’s weakness.
Cameron’s cave-in was probably made inevitable the moment the Obama administration waded in on Herr Schaeuble’s side. Last week a "senior US administration official" (I have a pretty good idea who) said, “It is important to state very clearly that a strong UK in a strong Europe is in America’s national interest”. What he meant to say was that a weak UK in a strong EU is in America’s interest, which demonstrates the extent to which Washington has misunderstood what is happening in Europe. Americans are not about to witness the creation of a United States of Europe cast in their own image, but a sophisticated powerplay by Germany for leadership in the age-old name of a ‘free Europe’. After all the sacrifice Britons have made over the past years supporting dubious American leadership this is Washington’s payback?
Clearly, the US sees Britain as little more than a foreign policy surrogate in the EU, casting Britain in the very role of American trojan horse that Charles de Gaulle so objected to back in the 1960s. I would like to suggest that Britain will not sacrifice its own liberty just because Washington cannot get its own foreign policy act together. However, so supine have British leaders become I am no longer at all sure.
Nor am I suggesting for a minute that Herr Schaeuble is seeking a return to the dark side of German history, but Europeans have by no means escaped their history and Schaeuble really needs to watch his language. Faced with a EUrozone crisis the severity of which very few even now understand Schaeuble is resorting to an age-old elite German tendency to be absolutely certain when absolutely wrong. Schaeuble believes that only by casting all other EUrozone states in the German image and subjecting them to indirect fiat will financial prudence be restored. Berlin’s strategy is to use EU institutions to that end while inserting clauses into agreements that protect Germany and its institutions from just such control. This month’s EU finance minister’s agreement over a European Banking Authority reeks of such caveats.
In a well co-ordinated intervention Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barthe Eide, who I know, like and respect, last week warned that Britain would find itself facing “regulation without representation” if it left the EU. What Espen has failed to understand is that in Germany’s new EUrozone Britain will face just such regulation without representation and still have to pay the enormous price for little or no influence that is the burden of Britain's contemporary EU membership. In other words, taxation without representation. It is a burden that will only get heavier. In other words, the status quo is not an option.
Therefore, the only way Britain could remain a member of the EU outside Germany’s EUrozone will be to establish an entirely new relationship between those in and those out. Such a relationship would need to be built on the kinds of checks and balances enshrined in the American constitution but which are steadily being removed from the EU summit by grinding summit. Far from lecturing the British people about accepting EU membership at any cost or manipulating a weak British prime minister the shape of just such a relationship should be the stuff of British, German and indeed American diplomacy in 2013. If a deal is not done by the German federal elections in September 2013 it will probably be too late as the British electoral cycle will then begin.
Freedom to choose is a freedom for which Americans and Britons fought and died for in their hundreds of thousands in two world wars. Americans, Germans (and Norwegians) of all peoples should respect and understand that.
Much EU about nothing? I don’t think so.