It should come as no surprise that American concerns about Britain’s relationship with the European Union should have surfaced so publicly. At the state department in Washington the anxiety is expressed in palpable terms, and anyone who has talked with senior US diplomats in London will have gathered just how troubling our closest ally finds this issue.
American desire for Britain to be a significant force in Europe springs from the justifiable belief that, around the European table, the UK most accurately represents its attitudes on those issues that are important to the US. Britain and America talk the same language on defence and trade, even if they do not always agree. Unlike France, Britain does not harbour suspicions, latent or overt, of America. Thus Britain’s presence in Brussels not only ensures the EU retains a significant Atlantacist dimension, it also means the British voice in Washington carries more weight.
Self-interest is not all one way. A recent but very deliberate change in emphasis in foreign policy has seen the US turn its gaze more towards the Pacific than to the Atlantic. If the longstanding US commitment to the defence of Europe is to be maintained, Europe must remain a co-operative partner not just in military matters but also in political and economic affairs. The UK is a vital conduit in that partnership.
Self-evidently this week’s unprecedented public demonstration of US attitudes has been provoked by Tory flirtation with the policy of renegotiation. So far not one member of the EU has shown any sign of willingness to discuss with the UK a relationship that would allow it a seat at the table while giving it the liberty to select those obligations of membership it chooses to honour. To open that box would be to embrace Pandora.
And what if there was no willingness to negotiate? The only card available to the UK to play would be complete withdrawal. It is a mistake to think that by putting a gun to their heads, the EU of the EU will be prepared to renegotiate the UK’s membership as a condition for supporting measures designed to bring stability to the eurozone. Any obstruction of measures which are considered crucial to securing the future of the union would put the UK beyond the pale. Influence over a regional settlement for economic and financial stability is essential to Britain’s national interest, something our European partners are well aware of. And what would other partners and allies outside Europe think? What would Americans think? They would all assume we were on our way out of the single market.
Those who argue for disengagement in whole or even part have a duty to tell us what the consequences would be. So far they have failed to do so. We need to be rational, not emotional. The issue must be about the essential nature of the relationship, not about squashing the ambitions of Ukip. The EU offers the best deal for Britain.The days of unlimited European patience to accommodate the UK have gone. If it were to be finally exhausted, Britain would either have to climb down or leave – the first being disastrous for the PM and the second for the country.
Is it easy? Of course not. David Cameron has ahead of him the task of balancing the demands of the likes of Peter Bone at home with the needs of Angela Merkel abroad, a more fraught undertaking than many PMs before him have had to deal with. The middle ground will not satisfy either of them and will alienate both of them.
What is the alternative? It is to show commitment, to demonstrate leadership and to take our opportunity. Britain is a top-table member of Nato, the UN, the EU, the Commonwealth and the G8, and the present government has rightly gone out of its way to establish better relations in South America. We stand therefore in a unique global diplomatic position. Detachment from Europe in whole or in part will be seen as opting out of a golden opportunity denied to others. Forced to choose between Bone and Merkel, Cameron should choose the interest of country over party.
Menzies Campbell is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats.