A lone stand against Europe is just a fantasy

It was strange to meet Vaclav Havel again the other day. Strange to see him in a suit, without a cigarette cupped in his hand; as an elder statesman rather than a scruffy dissident playwright. Most of all, though, it was strange to be talking to him about Europe. For the Havel generation that spawned the 1989 revolutions, Europe signified freedom, a set of deeply entrenched cultural values, a tradition of tolerance and reflection that would outlast communism and numb-skulled autocrats.

Now we were discussing a Europe that was trying to slow its loss of global influence and camouflage its lack of political will by tinkering with its institutions. The continent seemed to have taken a step backwards.

“The economic crisis is more than a tight cluster of problems that have to be disentangled,” said the former Czech President. “It is changing the way that we look at the world.” And, he might have added, redefining the whole concept of regional power: the crisis has shrivelled the influence of the political class. The EU used to be an interplay between the Big Five, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, and smaller nations, an uneven but often productive conversation. Now the Big Five are looking out for themselves, so naturally Ireland, small enough to fail, ran for cover.

Seen from the mainland, Britain is behaving irrationally: when Europe’s power is shrinking, the British are taking active steps to downgrade their status even further. A referendum on Lisbon, my German friends say, made sense only if it could be seen to expand popular democratic control over policy and strengthened British bargaining muscle. A post-ratification referendum does neither. So why aren’t the Conservatives changing their policies to match the facts?

Could it be incompetence, or part of a jejeune fantasy in which Britain recreates heroic myths by standing alone against Europe? Should the mainland prepare for a Cameroonian handbagging?

Traditionally, the only sure way to advance British interests in the EU was to form alliances to divide France from Germany. So, at various times, for various reasons, we have been best friends with Spain, Poland and even Italy. Finding friends to thwart Berlin and Paris remains an elementary diplomatic exercise even in a 27-member EU. It demands an ability to form clusters of common interests; a talent for working within. From the perspective of Mitteleuropa David Cameron doesn’t have this particular skill set. His manoeuvres in the European Parliament, his hang-on-in-there letter to Vaclav Klaus, suggest reckless short-termism rather than a considered view of Britain’s future role in Europe.

The mainland Europeans really do care about security on their eastern borders, about energy security and a regional response to climate change. They have been persuaded that the Lisbon treaty can, for better or worse, help. Is it any surprise that a country such as Slovakia, heavily dependent on Russian gas, should welcome a European president who can face down Vladimir Putin? British policy has to work with these realities; to flirt with the idea that there is an alternative future outside the EU is not just delusional — for the small countries who have always looked up to Britain, it smacks of arrogance.

For sure, the Lisbon treaty is not a triumph of statecraft; the non-British Europeans know that. Not because it will propel the continent towards a federal superstate, with Tony Blair as a kind of Holy Roman emperor. The fundamental problem is that it is a treaty based on fear.

The original EU was supposed to secure the postwar prosperity of Western Europe and ensure that France and Germany never took up arms against each other again. Until 1989 the European mission was essentially to stay happy, rich and out of harm’s way. The Havels and Lech Walesas changed all that. The two Germanys merged and the eastern longing for acceptance made enlargement a sensible goal.

Now, two decades on, the EU has realised that it is become significantly poorer, less secure along its borders and is probably unhappier than for half a century. For mainland Europeans the fulcrum of the continent has shifted significantly eastwards. On the borderlands there are wobbly dictatorships such as Belarus, blood feuds in the Balkans and, in the popular imagination, hordes of potential immigrants from Ukraine. Berlin and Vienna are little more than a hop, skip and jump from some dirt-poor communities.

Enlargement once seemed to give the EU a moral purpose; now it is seen as trouble. The moral purpose has been lost in a tangle of treaty-prose. How does it deal with this? It should be quarrying out a new sense of purpose. Instead it has cobbled together a treaty of which the deepest purpose is to find institutionally acceptable ways to block the entry of Turkey or Ukraine.

Lisbon enthusiasts pretend otherwise. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, recently declared that the treaty would enable the EU to intervene more effectively in South Asia and the Middle East. But there is no political will in member states to deploy more soldiers or to boost development aid to Pakistan. The treaty cannot change that.

Nor can it stoke enthusiasm for extending European reach beyond the continent. It is a piece of paper that promises far more than it can deliver, the rebranding of a tired project. Little wonder that many see the inventor of “Cool Britannia” as the ideal candidate to be the Great Helmsman. Cool Britannia had a half-life of four years; the newly minted Lisbonian Europe will soon be back to its old ways.

But the treaty does make it easier to marginalise Britain. If we care about Mr Havel’s disappearing Europe, we must stay close to its institutional hub, however uncomfortable, however frustrating. That is what they tell me in Mitteleuropa and I think we should listen to them. Against all the odds, there are still those in Europe who want us to stay inside the stockade.

Roger Boyes, Berlin correspondent of The Times.