G-20 summit: Brown revives Blair’s old Euro-Atlantic dream

So Gordon Brown went to Strasbourg and told the European Parliament that the EU is uniquely placed to provide world leadership in the economic crisis. Is this the Gordon Brown who deliberately avoided EU ministerial meetings and designed impassable tests the UK economy had to pass if he was to let it join the Euro? Why the change?

In the early New Labour years, Brown was tagged as the Euro-sceptic in the Cabinet, grumbling and worse about Tony Blair’s insistence on getting Britain out of the EU fringe where it had languished since Margaret Thatcher. So what’s happened now?

Interpretations

  • Could it be that Brown was so moved by his EU counterparts’ enthusiasm when he secured British ratification of the Lisbon Treaty that he decide he loves the EU after all? – Unlikely.
  • Could it be that Barack Obama encouraged him to play a bridging role between the US and the EU? – Not impossible: it makes sense, it’s what Blair tried to do and what Brown seems now to be trying, but whether it’s at Obama’s suggestion, only those who were there would know.
  • Could it simply be that Brown is attempting to corral EU opinion in favour of his (and Obama’s) preferred economic options ahead of the G-20? – Likely, but not the full story.

It would be a mistake to read Brown’s speech in Strasbourg on 24 March as a conversion – whether real or fake, profound or superficial – to a Europeanist cause of some kind. This was not a speech pitting Europe and the US against each other; alongside a world role for Europe, he talked of “a new era of heightened cooperation between Europe and America.” It sounded strangely like T Blair in the brief prime of New Labour.

Now, of course, this could all be pure blather. But there are reasons why it’s almost certainly not. The reasons are one part tactical, and one part strategic.

The tactics

Putting together a successful summit is a demanding and subtle task. Brown has clearly decided on a gameplan that mixes quiet background work with some grabs for the headlines. If it works, it will let him and his senior officials set not just the agenda but the tone for the meeting – and he is aiming for an interventionist, activist tone. This would meet his domestic political need to use international status to win back support and trust within the UK. And it would meet the international economic policy goals that the UK government and US administration genuinely share.

Activism, however, cannot go so far in either tone or substance that it leaves the majority of G-20 participants behind, or even a significant minority of them. Whenever there is a whiff of European uncertainty about what Brown has to say, such as from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or the toppling Mirek Topolanek, the Czech premier who currently holds the EU Presidency and has just a no-confidence vote, the Conservative opposition jumps up and says that if the European don’t like it, it must be wrong. Leaving aside the irony of the Conservatives suddenly using EU opinion as gauge by which to judge British government policies (the Conservatives are so profoundly anti-European they will not even work with European Conservatives after the June Euro-elections), the difficulty for Brown is that he is trying to lead without power, and a powerless leader depends on the consent of those he wants to follow, so any disagreement puts the whole effort at risk.

All of this inevitably leads Brown to see the tactical sense in edging closer to the European mainstream, both so as to maintain an agreeable unity among EU leaders, and so as to minimise the distance between them and the US for the sake of a successful G-20 summit. It is a high-risk, high-stakes approach to the summit. In that sense, it suits the risky times we live in.

The strategy

And then there is the bigger picture. UK foreign policy since the end of empire has basically swung between Atlanticist and Europeanist orientations. Where Ted Heath was Europeanist from 1970 to 1974, Margaret Thatcher was aggressively Atlanticist from 1979 to 1990. Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970 and Tony Blair in his initial period from 1997 to 2001 both tried to square the circle and be Euro-Atlantic – not as heatedly Europeanist as the true believers wanted, but not Eurosceptic either, and close to the US without sacrificing everything else to the desired ‘special relationship.’ Both sought to be the Euro-Atlantic bridge.

Notoriously, Blair failed. It is hard to keep on being a bridge when the gap between two sides is expanding, and Bush made the gap into an unbridgeable chasm. Moreover, whatever the Bush administration claimed to value and admire about Tony Blair, they did their own wheeling and dealing to split the new EU members from the longer established ones – the new Europe / old Europe distinction invented by Donald Rumsfeld in the prelude to invading Iraq – and that ceaseless interference from across the Atlantic consistently weakened Blair’s position. Less well remembered, Harold Wilson did not so much fail with the bridging as give it up, concentrating in his brief second term on winning the referendum to keep Britain in the European Economic Community.

Blair’s experience showed that, in the abstract, the choice for UK foreign policy is between a US and a European orientation. In reality, of course, the choice is not limited to two pure options – all pro-US or all EU-focused. Under Blair it looked that way but only because of the corner Bush kept on shoving him into. Under current circumstances, choices are available between nuanced mixtures of the US and EU foci.

But the point is that a choice has to be made along that US-EU continuum. The dream of a wholly independent UK foreign policy, shared both on the Labour left for several decades and in the Tory shires forever, is a distracting myth.  The alternative to making a choice on the US-EU continuum is not to have a foreign policy at all. The country’s government would still have foreign relations, of course, and react to events as they unfold, but it would not have a policy.

Seen in that light, what Brown is doing is bigger than manoeuvring for domestic political advantage or firming the agenda and tone for the G-20 summit, though it includes those. Rather, he is re-positioning UK foreign policy at a place on the US-EU continuum that is further from the US than Tony Blair of 2001-2007 vintage, and much more like the older Blair of 1997-2001.

So that’s why he sounds like that Tony Blair, then, because he’s doing the same thing. And he has started doing it at more or less the first opportunity – the first safe opportunity, anyway – the first time after the Bush administration has been unlamentedly laid to rest that the international spotlight has rested on UK policy.

Can it work?

It will be interesting to see if Brown can make this work. Where neither Wilson nor Blair could keep the trick going for long, one would not expect Brown to. But, to be honest, until this week, I did not expect him to try. All his sounds had been purely Atlanticist. With his Euro-Atlantic variations this week, he has come up with a refreshing change of tune.

The difficulty for Brown, however, is that he is opting to make his play in the G-20, where China, India, Brazil and others come into the picture. And he is doing so in the early months of a true world crisis, a potentially world-changing crisis. He may be choosing the right place on the US-EU continuum, but is that the right continuum on which to make the choice?

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