In March 1848, the then-Foreign Secretary and legendary statesman, Lord Palmerston, painted a picture of British foreign policy that has been instrumentalised as a realist maxim ever since.
Speaking in the House of Commons, in response to the revolutionary fervour then sweeping Europe, Palmerston claimed: “It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
It is an understatement to point out that the Europe Palmerston knew is much changed. And the informed historian would find it strange that Palmerston—a man avowedly supportive of national self-determination—could be emblematic of pro-European sentiment.
But the central thesis of his foreign policy philosophy—that interests abound above alliances—provides a powerful argument for why Britain must, today, seek to position itself at the heart of Europe. It is a permanent interest of the UK to have the ability to wield influence and effect change in the world, and an exit from the EU would seriously undermine this permanent interest.
There is a strange sense of déjà vu currently defining Britain’s internal European discourse. Since the 1980s, the European question has wreaked havoc with the internal homogeneity of the British Conservative Party. Thatcher, Major, and now Cameron, albeit for very different reasons, have all struggled to manage the various interests within their own ranks. In some cases, the consequences have been politically fatal.
The 2010 intake of Tory MPs has proven itself to be the most Eurosceptic bloc in parliament for years, and some Conservative cabinet ministers have publicly favoured Britain leaving the EU. For a Tory leader intent on maintaining London’s ties to Brussels, such views are visibly corrosive to party cohesion. Moreover, Conservatism as a grassroots movement is now at its most energetic in UKIP, whose electoral fortunes are on the rise.
One wonders how long Europe will be the Achilles’ heel of Conservative leaders.
Traditional arguments for and against British membership of the EU have mostly been economic and legalistic in nature, with additional concerns over political entrenchment from Brussels and Strasbourg. There are penetrating arguments on both sides.
Depending on who you listen to, an EU exit will create jobs or axe them. Independent, bilateral trade agreements will enable the UK to establish trade on its own terms, or the UK will effectively lose its largest single trading partner. And Westminster would either have greater lawmaking powers, or jettison itself from important social legislation that protects the rights of workers, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups.
During a period of genuine economic and fiscal crisis in Britain, concerns over jobs, welfare reform and immigration are unlikely to take a back seat to concerns of international diplomacy.
However, such things are dominating the policy discourse in Britain at a time when the risk of being strategically outflanked is at its most acute. Particularly when defence reviews have limited its military capabilities for a generation at least, the UK should embolden its diplomatic instrumentation, not castrate it.
In short, what is missing from the Europe debate is an understanding of what would happen to Britain’s role in the world if it were to withdraw from the European project altogether.
Britain is, quite simply, able to exert more influence on critical postmodern international crises as a member of the EU, rather than as an outsider. In issues such as arms control, climate change, counter-narcotics and counter-piracy, and dealing with challenger states such as Syria, effective influence is only possible in a multilateral framework.
A British exit from the EU would render its position that of a diplomatic outsider, a “polite pariah”, a challenger state obsessed with an old Atlantic order. And this order is fast becoming unravelled under the ascendency of a new Pacific epicentre of international relations.
The world is simply too big and complex for an independent UK to wield any real influence on issues that matter.
The act of cutting the European cord would become a diplomatic hot potato that could damage Britain’s relations with key European allies for a generation and, considering recent overtures from Washington, what most Eurosceptics regard as its most important bilateral relationship.
It is clear that the EU is in need of some kind of reform, whatever that may be. But even faint chatter of a British exit does no favours for its foreign policy interests. Britain should take the lead on calls for internal reform, rather than forcibly eject the toys (and itself) from the pram.
David Cameron has, so far, attempted to navigate his course carefully, balancing the Eurosceptics in his own party with his own convictions that EU membership is, broadly speaking, right for Britain.
Over the course of the next four years, as British voters prepare for an in-or-out referendum, the arguments will pivot on everyday concerns for jobs, constitutional reform and immigration. This is important, and should be debated thoroughly.
But strategic depth should not be forgotten, and the Government would do well to remember that its interests in maintaining a global role are permanent ones. Getting bogged down over the nature of its alliances is counter-productive. Resulting in an EU exit, it would plague British foreign policy for generations.
It is said, “there are no votes in foreign policy.” Whether or not this is the case, it is time for the policy community to begin thinking properly about Britain’s role in the world and its relationship with Europe at a strategic level. It is an inadequate excuse to suggest that foreign policy matters less than jobs, social change, and national sovereignty, because Europe is a key theatre where these concerns collide.
And if Britain gets this question wrong, the impact on the entire tableau of public policy will be profound.