German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy already knew before attending the EU conference on euro zone debt relief last week that Britain was totally opposed to their proposals for economic integration. They learned this from UK Prime Minister David Cameron when the three met the previous evening. His principal concern was the UK's own sovereignty and, in particular, the welfare of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, aka the Bank of England.
The UK has always been seen by many as an ambivalent member of the European community. From dragging its heels on metrication to stonewalling on what goes on at Menwith Hill it has acted like the bride of an arranged marriage while maintaining and enhancing her “special relationship” with the continent.
After the conference at which the other member states agreed in principle to the proposals, Merkel, Sarkozy, and Cameron downplayed the significance of the UK's veto. Very few listeners were buying it.
When Angela Merkel was 13-years-old another French president took to the podium to explain why the UK should never be a member of what was then known as the Common Market. General Charles de Gaulle did not mince his words. “The recent report of the Brussels Commission,” he said, “Had shown clearly that membership of the EEC was incompatible with the economy of Britain, with her chronic deficiency in balance of payments. It was also incompatible with the British tradition of obtaining cheap food from all parts of the world.”
Cameron has been on the defensive since he returned to Westminster from the conference. Most of his Conservative party colleagues are pleased at what they see as the beginning of the end of the UK's involvement with the EU. However they must tone down their exuberance in public as their partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, strongly support EU membership and could provoke a snap election anytime by pulling out of the government coalition.
Even though the French, because of their financial problems, are by far the weaker side in the Franco-German alliance, is pushing the new treaty deal they believe they have the most to gain. Merkel, like Cameron, is a supporter of closer cooperation between the U.S. and the EU. France, on the other hand, has always considered that European independence was more important to its interests. Nevertheless Germany is firmly behind the proposals. "The question is not whether we prefer to solve the debt crisis with the entire EU or within the Euro Group," said a member of German government. “The question is how we can save Europe at all.”
As a result of the conference the conversation within the EU has moved away from political and military integration and the focus now is on tighter monetary integration and control, with Germany firmly in the driving seat of EU monetary policy. To most observers, this sets the correct priorities. The German Bundestag had already assumed the leadership role prior to the conference in relation to those countries that had already been bailed out.
The fact that Germany’s right to claim this status has broadly gone undisputed is testimony to her inner strengths in rising from the ashes of two devastating military defeats, successfully reuniting the country after years of partition and rebuilding her manufacturing and export economy. Provided she can bridge the culture gap between herself and the other EU states this augurs well for the EU maturing into a major independent player on the world stage — with or without the UK. Leaders of the BRICS will be watching developments closely.
Ex-UK Foreign Minister David Miliband tweeted that Cameron’s decision meant that the UK had "jumped into a rowing boat … next to a … supertanker." It remains to be seen if Cameron can safely navigate his way back to a working relationship with the other 26 EU member states.
Photo Credit: Tony O’Doherty.