The seemingly endless euro crisis is driving the UK towards a choice about what sort of country the UK wishes to be and about what sort of world we believe we live in. Are we to be a less independent nation in the EU power bloc, in a ‘bloc world,’ in which size matters; or, are we a sovereign nation in a network world, where dynamism and effectiveness, rather than size, are more important determinants of prosperity? Delaying this choice is unsettling Conservatives in the coalition.
William Hague regularly promotes the UK as part of a ‘networked world.’ His first major foreign policy speech as Foreign Secretary set out his aim to ‘deliver a distinctive British foreign policy that extends our global reach and influence, that is agile and energetic in a networked world.’ He said, ‘the emergence of a networked world’ was ‘the most striking change’ the UK faces internationally. By this, he meant that ‘influence increasingly lies with networks of states, with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance and connections, including the informal, which act as vital channels of influence and decision-making and require new forms of engagement from Britain.’ US author Anne-Marie Slaughter has suggested that the networked world is something which ‘exists above the state, below the state, and through the state.’
In addition, international relations themselves now are conducted at different levels: ‘Relations between states are now no longer monopolised by Foreign Secretaries or Prime Ministers. There is now a mass of connections between individuals, civil society, businesses, pressure groups and charitable organisations which are also part of the relations between nations and which are being rapidly accelerated by the internet.’ As well as traditional international negotiations, the UK would have to communicate through new channels and ‘carry our arguments in courts of public opinion around the world.’
The idea of a networked world is in contrast to a view of a world divided into regional power blocs or dominated by multilateral institutions. As a result, bilateral relations between states – as members of multiple networks – would be emphasised as well as multilateral diplomacy through international bodies. Coalition foreign policy has therefore seen a strong emphasis on bilateral visits, and on bilateral trade. These bilateral visits have often been heavy on commercial diplomacy, with trade delegations of business people accompanying ministers. David Cameron, has stated that Britain ‘should be messianic in wanting to see free trade and open markets around the world,’ and has led business delegations to India, China, South Africa and Russia. William Hague has declared that supporting British business represents ‘an existential mission’ for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The idea of a networked world was reflected in the National Security Strategy, which stated that ‘geographically Britain is an island, but economically and politically it is a vital link in the global network.’ This is not dissimilar to David Miliband’s description, when he was Foreign Secretary, of Britain as a ‘global hub.’ The National Security Strategy also described London as ‘a world city, acting as a second home for the decision-makers of many countries.’
Rather than conceiving of the UK as primarily part of a bloc, the Prime Minister has emphasised the UK’s distinct advantages and unique selling points: ‘not only the hard power of our military, but our unique inventory of other assets, all of which contribute to our political weight in the world: our global language; the intercontinental reach of our time zone; our world-class universities; the cultural impact around the world of the BBC; the British Council; our great museums; a civil service and a diplomatic service which are admired the world over.’
That is the idea. But there is little sense that this view is informing our response to the challenges which we currently face, with a eurozone crisis threatening our economic recovery. What is our response to the prospect of a ‘banking union’ in the Eurozone and dramatically closer political integration? The Prime Minister promised a major speech on EU policy just before Christmas, but it never emerged. For coalition, read ‘paralysis’ on Europe.
The Liberal Democrats still cling to the idea of the ‘bloc world,’ and they believe if we finish up outside the mainstream of euro-integration, the UK would be isolated, insignificant and devoid of influence – a far cry from the Foreign Secretary’s profession of belief in a world of overlapping networks in which the UK would build on multiple relationships with countries across the world.
Most Conservatives believe the UK’s future would be better served by attempting to wield influence and maintain friendships through different networks of states, rather than through the single institution of the EU. One especially significant network for the UK is the Commonwealth – which spans continents and world religions, contains six of the fastest growing economies and is underpinned by an agreed framework of common values. There is also our important bilateral relationship with the US, and our relations with the broader network of English-speaking countries. According to this vision, the UK would seek to be a flexible and agile actor within multiple international networks, while keeping a strongly independent conception of our national interest.
It is difficult to see how such an approach could be reconciled with basing our foreign policy on remaining bound to an ever more integrated EU bloc, a bloc which is of declining relative economic, military and diplomatic importance in the world. The UK would not need to leave the EU to pursue a different approach, but would need to fundamentally reform our relationship with it. The consequences of the euro crisis are now pressing this question and, as Lord Owen pointed out, lecturing our EU partners on what they should do in the euro crisis begs the question: ‘But what is the British position?’