The European Union’s claim to potential greatness rests, according to its supporters, on it being a giant bloc that can wield power globally by dint of its scale and sheer sophistication. In the face of this regulatory and diplomatic behemoth, silly little Brexit Britain, marooned, doomed, deluded, supposedly stands no chance.
How delicious then that the EU itself has provided a timely corrective to this narrative by revealing, once again, its true clodhopping character when it plays geopolitics.
This week, EU officials are rushing to conclude an investment pact with the Chinese Communist Party before the year ends. Chinese state media reported that the talks are in the “final stretch”. Germany holds the presidency of the EU until January and is desperate, embarrassingly so, to conclude a deal with China.
The timing of this striking act of gross ineptitude could hardly be worse from the perspective of those interested in the defence of the West against totalitarian China.
Joe Biden is less than a month away from becoming president and one of his first and most important tasks is to co-ordinate a unified diplomatic response to an increasingly tyrannical and expansionist China. President Trump’s rhetoric on the subject may have been wild but it was only an extreme manifestation of what has become a bipartisan consensus in recent years in Washington. Dealing intelligently and robustly with China is essential.
In this difficult context, the joint Russian and Chinese bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea this week was troubling. The South Koreans and Japanese had to scramble jets in response.
The worried Biden team is seeking to assemble an international coalition, in the hope that western unity might persuade China to be less aggressive on subjects such as Hong Kong. Britain, as the main security and intelligence partner of the US, is willing, especially after having barred the Chinese state-sanctioned technology firm Huawei from our infrastructure. So is Australia.
Earlier this month, Angela Merkel’s government did the opposite. It gave Huawei a conditional go-ahead in Germany.
So baffled are the Biden team by the EU and Germany cosying up to China, in this of all years, that they issued what amounted to a public rebuke, or a cry for help, this week.
Above a Reuters report detailing the EU drive for a pact with China, Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to Biden, tweeted: “The Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices.”
This is the polite Biden equivalent of a Trump tirade on Twitter asking the Germans and the EU what the hell they think they’re playing at.
What the German government is playing at is obvious. After a tough year for all of us, Germany wants and needs to get the show on the road again in terms of Chinese investment and exports. China accounted for 7.1 per cent of German exports in 2018. This is what underpins the EU push to open up new parts of the Chinese markets, in return for Chinese investment in the EU.
Contrast this desperation for deals with China with the EU and Germany’s prevailing attitude to naughty Britain. Concluding a Brexit deal with its close neighbour and ally was turned into a tortuous process. At the denouement this week, the French government even decided to blockade Britain under the cover of Covid-19. France’s minister for European affairs issued a poltroonish post on social media pointing to pictures of lorries queued up in the southeast of England: “For all the pseudo-patriots who praise the permanent closure of borders every day . . .”
Such sanctimony is standard when French ministers are publicly baiting their closest defence partners — the British — but far from it indicating confidence, it suggests that the French and the EU are genuinely worried about a more nimble, buccaneering Britain emerging long-term from the mess of Brexit.
That is the heart of it. The referendum dispute and its aftermath come down, ultimately, to two perfectly valid but conflicting analyses of the country’s likely future in the face of developments outside our direct control. The Remainer view was that the EU will be one of the defining powers of the coming century and that we are better off being inside it trying to shape its policy.
The Brexiteer view favours being nimble, resting on a calculated bet (and all major strategic decisions involve calculations of risk) that the EU is not the savvy operator it pretends. Too often it is slow-witted and old-fashioned in the face of what is coming in terms of international politics, security and technology.
The German misreading of the China situation is the most egregious example yet and it should, at the very least, prompt some reflection among those still howling about the supposed terrors of Brexit.
The EU’s flawed approach has been apparent too in its roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines, where it emphasises solidarity at the cost of speed. Britain was not quicker to vaccinate directly because of Brexit. The decision was taken within EU law but it was a policy choice that suggested a different state of mind emerging in post-Brexit Britain.
As with the vaccines, there is a long way to go on Brexit. But the mess the EU is making of its policy on China is a defining moment. For Britain, it shows the wisdom of choosing a different path.
Iain Martin is a columnist for The Times. He is a former editor of The Scotsman and a former senior executive at The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. He is the author of the award-winning book Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the men who blew up the British Economy and Crash, Bang, Wallop: The Inside Story of Big Bang and Financial Revolution That Changed the World.