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It takes a crisis

Posted by Helen Thursday, August 28, 2008 , , , , ,

About ten years ago I was privileged (if that is the right expression) to lead a discussion at the Centre for Policy Studies on the subject of British foreign policy – do we have one in the light of the developing EU common foreign and security policy (CFSP) and can we actually define what it ought to be. I have an odd suspicion that it was before the watershed of 1997, that is, under the last Conservative government. Otherwise, the CPS would not have been thinking about developing policies. So, let us say, 1996.

The crisis that the EU could not cope with was the disintegration of Yugoslavia that had been going on since 1989 and had been made worse by the posturing of various West European politicians. (I wasn’t going to mention Douglas Hurd and his letter about level killing fields but find that I cannot resist the temptation.)

Since then both my colleague and I have written many tens of thousands of words on the subject of the EU's common foreign policy as weary readers of this blog know. To sum up, the structures and institutions of the CFSP have been developing, treaty by treaty, Council by Council with cheerleaders like the Centre for European Reform's director Charles Grant telling us that Europe must play a stronger role in the world and can do so only by speaking with one voice. I have never had an answer to the question "what will the Single European Voice say".

This has been the problem all along as we, on this blog, have grown tired of pointing out: there is no common interest among the 27 member states so there can be no common foreign policy. But if the EU is to turn itself into a more or less functioning state, it has to have a foreign policy. Each time we go round this argument we reach an impasse that becomes particularly obvious whenever there is a crisis.

Well, here we are in another crisis that involves Russia, Georgia, other former Soviet colonies and a spectacularly inept performance by the EU. The old structures, NATO, G7 and individual countries are beginning to reassert themselves and Britain has, amazingly enough, made it clear that it is siding against Russia's aggressive intent to reconstruct the Soviet geopolitical sphere. Well, the Foreign Secretary has made it clear as has the Leader of the Opposition. There has been little from the Prime Minister and the Shadow Foreign Secretary but one cannot have everything.

Mirabile dictu, at least one journalist, Iain Martin in The Daily Telegraph, to be precise, has noticed an interesting thing. Britain, he has discovered, has no foreign policy beyond becoming more involved with the EU's CFSP and, as a consequence, farming out what is left of that policy. Well, well, well. How long did it take Mr Martin to discover this? And why does he need to dilute his discussion of a very important topic with the inevitable speculation about David Miliband's plans to become Leader of the Labour Party either before or after the next election?

In fact, what is the point of spending quite so much time on lambasting Gordon Brown (a sport that is akin to shooting fish in a barrel) instead of analyzing how the country has reached this particular stage?

Of course, Mr Martin might have to acknowledge that this is not a problem created by the Labour government but one that has been in the background since the beginning of the European project and has been definitely developing since the Maastricht Treaty whose Title J first spoke of a common foreign and security policy, though in very general terms, and an intention would be to formulate a common defence policy.

Since then the idea has been gaining ground steadily and as steadily has the notion of an independent British foreign policy been disappearing from the public debate. Tony Blair would not have had as many problems with the war in Iraq if he had argued the need for it on the basis of British interests and British foreign policy but being a true supporter of European integration and of transnational thinking he could not bring himself to do that.

The world, Iain Martin thinks, is a scary place and the response to that should be a development of where Britain's interests lie, this being an alliance with the United States though not a close subservience to it, rather than a drowning in the European project and an acceptance of Franco-German ideas as being the right ones to follow. Mr Martin has noticed, apparently, that neither France nor Germany have been particularly alert on the subject of Russia and her aggressiveness. But then, neither has our own Foreign Office. Come to think of it, our media has been remarkably quiescent on the subject of British foreign policy and what it should be.

Still, we must cease worrying. Iain Martin is not alone in noting this peculiar development. Daniel Hannan has also written about it on his blog. As I said, it takes a crisis …