Martin Rosenbaum, ed. Britain and Europe: The Choices We Face

How to Remain America's Privileged Partner

The American interest in the UK's European policy can be stated in a fairly simple syllogism. The first premise is that United States has a strong interest in an integrated, enlarged European Union based on free-market principles and active in the wider world. Such a Union will help ensure peace on the European continent (where America fought several costly wars during the 20th century), provide the basis for prosperity in a bloc of nearly 500 million people (which is America's leading trading and investment partner), and contribute to security and development in Eurasia and in the wider world (in ways that none of America's other global partners are willing or able to do).

The second premise is that the EU is much more likely to evolve in this direction if the UK is an active, influential actor within it than if London is marginalized or excluded. Even as its political, economic and strategic orientations gradually align with those of continental Europe, the UK maintains the broadly liberal, Atlanticist, and internationalist views that the United States wants to see shape the European agenda.

Thus the conclusion: The American interest is in a UK that plays an influential role from within the EU rather than one that stands aside, let alone one that seeks to scupper the EU project altogether. We would rather see a Britain that helps to ensure that the Union remains an open, outward-looking, cooperative partner of the United States than a Britain that joins us in splendid isolation and exclusion.

Of course in real life the choices are rarely so simple. The UK's dilemma for the past fifty years has been whether or not to participate in European initiatives that it does not fully support. Participating means boarding a train whose destination may not be Britain's preferred one, but failing to participate means losing the chance to influence the choice of that destination, and allowing the train to go there without it. In practice, as Hugo Young so compellingly demonstrated in This Blessed Plot, the pattern has most often been that the UK initially stays out but eventually decides to get in, once it becomes clear that the project is going to go forward. This was true for the Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the European Economic Community in 1959, various defense initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s, Schengen in the 1990s, and now—potentially at least—for the euro. The cost of this approach for Britain has been an inability to shape many of the initiatives that it has failed to prevent, and persistent skepticism in Europe about the UK's commitment to the European project.

To see why, consider all the key areas of the European debate, and ask whether Europe is better for America with the British playing an influential inside role or whether it would be better if the UK were left out. (My assumption here, backed by the 50 years of evidence already mentioned, is that British abstinence will not be enough to prevent the other Europeans from eventually moving forward.)

One reason we want to see an influential Britain in the EU is as a hedge against the Union moving in an elitist, federalist direction that would make it less, rather than more, democratic, and arguably more subject to public backlash. To be sure, a federal model would be more efficient in theory, but just as majorities in most EU countries now support the Union, similar majorities oppose centralization in Brussels, which London is certain to help prevent. Even a continental federalist like Jacques Delors once admitted that "you have to keep the British in the EC for their democratic tradition if nothing else." The outcome of the December 2000 Nice summit—which reinforced the intergovernmental character of the Union—was certainly not pretty, but it did reflect the reality that the EU is still made up of separate, democratic nation-states, whose rights and interests must be protected. The summit's adoption of the principle of "enhanced cooperation" is a much more pragmatic, workable arrangement than would be the adoption of a formalized, federal "hard core" from which the British would be left out.

Britain's support for EU enlargement is also in the American interest in projecting stability and security across the continent. Many Americans, of course, all-too-glibly call on Europeans to generously extend their borders to the East in a way we would never consider doing for Mexico (or even Canada), but more than a decade after the Cold War it is time to accelerate the process. Tony Blair's October 2000 speech in Warsaw calling on the Union to enlarge to at least several new countries by the 2004 parliamentary elections was a constructive contribution to the European debate. Achieving this goal would be an historic achievement.

A third way in which an influential Britain helps shape Europe in the right way is through its promotion of economic openness. The UK's traditional free-trade instincts and the Labour party's more recent adoption of pragmatic liberalism work both to promote prosperity and to keep the Union open to the economic interaction with the United States that is so vital to both sides of the Atlantic. Calls by some British Euro-skeptics for the UK to join NAFTA are not only unrealistic but also a poor alternative to open trade and investment between the U.S. and the EU, which a strong UK voice in Europe can help promote. British activism from the inside was a critical component in the success of the "1992" single market program, essential in the June 2000 Lisbon "dot-com" summit, and the only hope for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. This influence helps to ensure the sort of modern, prosperous Europe in which entrepreneurship, trade, and investment can flourish.

The United States also has a strong interest in an effective European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) compatible with NATO, and this cannot be achieved without British participation and influence. To the extent that ESDP leads to greater actual European military capabilities—not at all a certainty but a reasonable hope—it contributes to burden-sharing within the Atlantic Alliance. An effective ESDP is also in the U.S. interest as a possible alternative to NATO in places "where the Alliance as a whole is not engaged" to borrow the agreed language of NATO and EU communiqués. Many U.S. Senators are inherently skeptical about anything that could undermine NATO's preeminence, but nothing would make those same Senators happier than the thought that Europe could do more military intervention in Africa or Asia, sparing the United States the burden of having to do so. Finally, America has an interest in an effective European military capability to deal even with contingencies in Europe, like the Balkans, if the United States proves unwilling to play its part. ESDP is only in the U.S. interest, however, if it is done in ways that neither threaten NATO's effectiveness nor lead to the costly and unnecessary duplication of all-too-limited means. The UK has over the past two years played an indispensable role in ensuring that these risks are avoided, which would not have been possible had London not been intimately involved.

The United States also has a strong interest in an effective European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) compatible with NATO, and this cannot be achieved without British participation and influence. To the extent that ESDP leads to greater actual European military capabilities—not at all a certainty but a reasonable hope—it contributes to burden-sharing within the Atlantic Alliance. An effective ESDP is also in the U.S. interest as a possible alternative to NATO in places "where the Alliance as a whole is not engaged" to borrow the agreed language of NATO and EU communiqués. Many U.S. Senators are inherently skeptical about anything that could undermine NATO's preeminence, but nothing would make those same Senators happier than the thought that Europe could do more military intervention in Africa or Asia, sparing the United States the burden of having to do so. Finally, America has an interest in an effective European military capability to deal even with contingencies in Europe, like the Balkans, if the United States proves unwilling to play its part. ESDP is only in the U.S. interest, however, if it is done in ways that neither threaten NATO's effectiveness nor lead to the costly and unnecessary duplication of all-too-limited means. The UK has over the past two years played an indispensable role in ensuring that these risks are avoided, which would not have been possible had London not been intimately involved.

Obviously, the defining issue regarding the British relationship with Europe will be its decision on whether or not to join the euro. This is of course a decision only the British can make, and the U.S. has no particular stake in the abstract. If the British public is strongly opposed and UK business cycle is significantly out of synch with Europe's, then the UK should say out; in the short run this will do little harm. Ultimately, however, a successful single currency helping to facilitate cross-border trade and investment, control inflation, and lower interest rates across the entire European single market would be good for both the UK and the U.S. For years, American economists were generally dubious about the merits of a single European currency on economic grounds, but they were also skeptical that it would ever happen and they were wrong about that. To the basic economic argument that a single currency will not work in Europe because European wages, prices and labor markets are not flexible enough there is an equally basic response: they must be made more flexible. This is not only a good thing in its own right, but it is far more likely to happen if the UK is part of the euro zone than if it is not. For better or worse, the euro now exists, and it is hard to see how anyone has an interest in its failure. Just as the British eventually reconciled themselves to the need to participate in the Common Market they once opposed, this is a reality that London will ultimately need to accept.

Aside from all the potential benefits to both Britain and America of a strong British role in the EU, it is also worth mentioning the possible risks of the alternative. For the past ten years, Britain's "special relationship" with the United States has proven more enduring than many had predicted when the Cold War ended. London (and Paris) still garner more attention in Washington than Brussels—and even than Berlin, which was tipped at the time as America's new "partner in leadership." But Britain's privileged position is not guaranteed, and it is far more vulnerable on the outskirts of Europe than it would be at Europe's core. As European integration proceeds (and succeeds) in the economic, diplomatic and military domains—and as Germany continues to overcome the costs of unification and its inhibitions about playing a geopolitical role—the U.S. will inevitably have to cast its sights more toward the continent than toward the UK. Fully in Europe, Britain has every chance to remain America's preferred and privileged partner. Marginalized from the EU, Britain could find itself less influential in Washington as well. It is time for Britain, to put a new spin on Churchill's phrase, to be "of" Europe, as well as "for" it.