On Sunday in a Bavaria beer tent, the most extraordinary and depressing statement for a generation concerning Britain’s place in Europe was made by Angela Merkel. The fact that it came in front of 2,500 faithful from one of our most important sister parties, the Christian Democrats, was even more devastating. ‘We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.’ She went on, ‘of course we need to have friendly relations with the US and the UK, and with other neighbours, including Russia’, but; ‘we have to fight for our own future ourselves.’
This is an unashamed call for Macron and France, to join with her and Germany, especially as her victory in September now looks guaranteed, and reinvigorate Europe. On one level this must be welcomed. Europe is facing a host of problems, as brilliantly outlined by James Clark, and is in need of serious reform if it is to survive and stand up to Russia. But the assumption that Britain can merely be lumped in with the United States, a country in serious peril, whose leader can’t even commit to Article 5 in front of a memorial to 9/11 and the War on Terror – still the only occasion when Article 5 was triggered – is what’s both wrong and right about Merkel’s statement. Wrong, because this is not the answer to the challenges we face, nor the only route to our future opportunities. Right because this is the direction in which we are sleepwalking simply because of historic ties and linguistic convenience.
However, what is depressing is not that this was new information, but that this is now Europe’s entrenched view of Britain. We are seen by many in Europe not as ‘traitors’, which tabloids would have you believe, but as little more than an irrelevance. It is this apathy which leaves me forlorn. Rather than simply berating another European leader for their arrogance, though we have certainly done, we must ask ourselves the question: how has it come to this?
The nation which, in the words of Thatcher, ‘liberated half Europe’, the nation that led seven coalitions against the tyranny of Napoleon. The nation, indeed, that created the single market and European Court of Justice. Forgotten, while Germany, one of our oldest allies (for British history predates 1939) seeks to build a partnership without us. We have forgotten what made us great and what we cannot neglect if we want to be a nation of real influence again. Our relationship and influence with our European neighbours has always been the lynchpin of British success abroad.
Britain has never truly succeeded when she has not had a serious hand in the continent. Indeed, the shattering end of the Pax Britannica was foreshadowed by our hopelessness during the Crimea War and marginalisation in the Schleswig-Holstein crisis and the redrawing of the map of Europe following the Franco-Prussian War. The lesson is clear: when we allow Europe to reshape without being at the table or neglect our role for too long, the reckoning is greater and the difficulties more insurmountable. The countless pristine cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission across Northern France and Belgium are a testament to this. No, I am not suggesting that we are heading to World War Three, but the fact remains that when Europe moves it has a vast impact on us, whether we like it or not.
This is a simple fact of Geography. No number of even the most generous free trade deals with Australia, a nation over 10,500 thousand miles away, on the other side of the world, can make up for this! This is also why the worst decision in recent British History was Herbert Morrison’s 1949 mind-numbingly, shortsighted and stupid dismissal of Britain’s potential membership in the European Coal and Steel community with, ‘the Durham miners will never wear it’.
However, this doesn’t need to be the case. We still have attractive and interesting cards to play. Our financial service sector is still the best in the world. Our intelligence and security services, led by GCHQ, are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of Europe. Our Nuclear Deterrent and commitment to 2% on defence are essential when faced with a pathological Putin. Not to mention our world-leading education sector – particularly the best universities in the world outside the USA. In short, the tools with which to address these statements and our current situation are there but what is required is now a serious shift in attitude. As our most prestigious forebearers did, we must keep one hand firmly in Europe, contributing to and shaping European affairs.
This will require a shift in attitudes on both sides of the Channel. How can we expect them to see things from our point of view if we fail to face up to the fact that, in their view, we have pulled up the drawbridge and walked away? Now more than ever Britain cannot leave the continent to be divided between France and Germany, but needs to reassert itself as a European power.
Written by Henry Greenwell