The countdown begins this week for the momentous question facing Britain: whether to exit the European Union – the so-called Brexit. While the issue seems to be primarily one for British national interests, lurking in the background is a crucial geopolitical concern for the United States. The outcome of the British referendum on Europe could severely undermine Washington’s global hegemonic ambitions and in particular its adversarial agenda towards Russia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron launched a diplomatic charm offensive only days after European Council President Donald Tusk published the outline of a deal to retain Britain’s membership of the 28-nation EU bloc. That provisional deal was the product of months of negotiations between the London government and the EU establishment, aimed at giving Britain more national freedom from Brussels. Cameron contends that he has won enough concessions to bolster British sovereignty, and the Conservative government leader is now openly campaigning for continued membership of the EU on that basis.
Cameron needs the backing of other EU leaders to finalize the reform package that he and Tusk have negotiated. His first stops this week were in Poland and Denmark where newly elected EU skeptical governments are inclined to sympathize with British concerns for wresting more national freedoms within the bloc. It’s not certain if an EU leaders’ summit slated for February 18-19 will agree to the British premier’s desired reforms. Some see Britain’s sought-after concessions as undermining the whole concept of the EU on matters of free movement and workers’ rights. Both Germany and France have said that they are not willing to keep Britain onboard «at any price» – indicating a limit to tolerance towards British concessions.
Meanwhile, many within Cameron’s own Conservative Party are angry that he has not secured enough for British sovereignty. There was broad consternation across Britain’s mainly rightwing news media this week over what they perceived as Cameron «selling out» to EU integrationists. And outside his Tory party, the more nationalistic United Kingdom Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, lambasted Cameron’s reform deal as «pathetic», claiming that he has caved-in on all previous promises to gain more radical reforms. The UKIP has already won over many traditional Conservative voters and the defection of a number of Tory lawmakers with its fervent Eurosceptic policies. It is campaigning for a decisive break from the EU.
For more than 40 years, Britain’s Conservative Party has been in turmoil over the European question. Since Britain joined the bloc back in 1973, the party has continually threatened to tear itself asunder over the question of EU membership. It’s not only Nigel Farage and the UKIP who are pushing for a Brexit. Some senior Tories within Cameron’s executive cabinet are also pushing to abandon the EU. One such group is Conservatives for Britain, led by Lord Nigel Lawson, who was formerly the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
David Cameron is walking a thin line. Adding to the pressure on the British leader is Washington. The American political establishment – whether Democrat or Republican – is unequivocal in wanting Britain to remain inside the EU. Washington can’t express this position too forcefully, otherwise it could be seen as undue interference in British internal affairs. Nevertheless, American interests have inevitably reared their head in the debate.
This week, on the same day that Cameron announced his reform package, US President Barack Obama reportedly phoned the British leader to urge a vigorous campaign for EU membership. The White House said, Obama «reaffirmed continued US support for a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union».
Earlier, Washington issued an extraordinary broadside against the anti-EU campaign when it disclosed that in the event of a Brexit a newly independent Britain would not be afforded any special bilateral trade arrangement. The Obama White House said that outside of EU membership Britain would be faced with crippling trade tariffs, in the same category as China, Brazil or India. That was seen as a major blow to Britain’s pro-independence camp, which has argued that British economic interests would be better served as an independent state free from the EU.
The question is why should Washington be so adamant about Britain staying in the EU? The answer was partly revealed by Lord Lawson, leader of the Conservatives for Britain group. In an interview with the BBC aired last month, Lawson said that the US’ primary interest is to be able to exert its influence over the entire EU by having its closest ally, Britain, within the bloc. Lawson was demur on the subject, but in effect what he meant was that Britain is Washington’s surrogate in relations towards the rest of Europe.
There are two strategic issues to illustrate the point. The first is the mammoth trade pact that Washington is trying to conclude with the EU. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is seen as giving a vital boost to American exports to Europe – whose total population is nearly twice that of the US. For a historically sluggish US economy that would be a very welcome release.
However, there is much resistance among EU citizens to the TTIP because it is seen as giving too much power to US capital over European workers’ rights and food and environmental standards. Britain under Cameron is a big fan of the TTIP, intensively lobbying the rest of the EU to sign up to the pact. So, if Britain were to exit the European bloc, there is a risk that the TTIP would fall through. A major setback for Washington.
Secondly, and more importantly, America’s much-vaunted «special relationship» with Britain has guaranteed for Washington a Svengali-like influence over European states. This goes all the way back to the early days of European integration following the Second World War. British subordination to American interests – whether under Conservative or Labour governments – has always meant that EU policies are heavily weighted to meld with Washington’s geopolitical ambitions.
British foreign and military policies – always closely aligned with those of the US – have effectively stamped the EU with an identity synonymous with the American-led NATO military alliance. Britain is by no means the only Atlanticist voice within Europe, but it is arguable that without the British surrogate, Washington’s influence over the EU would be much diminished.
Take Washington’s reckless regime-change military interventions around the world over recent decades – from former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, to Afghanistan and Iraq, from Libya to Syria and Ukraine. In all of these illegal interventions, Europe has become embroiled because of Britain’s supportive role to Washington’s objectives.
With regard to Russia, it is conceivable that the ongoing standoff between Europe and Moscow would not have reached the severity it has if it were not for Britain instrumenting Washington’s agenda for imposing sanctions.
It is noteworthy that many saner voices within Europe, such as Italy’s premier Matteo Renzi, Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron, have in recent months been calling for a rapprochement with Russia over the Ukraine crisis. The reasonable supposition is that relations between Europe and Russia would be more compatible were it not for Britain acting as Washington’s «fifth columnist» within the EU.
While the EU did indeed play a sinister role along with Washington in instigating the regime change coup in Ukraine in February 2014, it is nonetheless plausible that the resulting dangerous clash with Moscow would not have transpired to the extent it has if Europe exerted a more independent foreign policy agenda from the US.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Britain has acted as Washington’s right-hand man, cajoling the others to adopt a stridently more anti-Russian posture, which has in turn fueled greater NATO military buildup across Europe and a deepening diplomatic rift with Moscow.
Britain’s referendum on a Brexit may take place as soon as this June, with the outcome that it may quit the EU by the end of next year. Polls so far indicate that it is a close call, but the latest survey this week gives the «leave Europe» campaign a substantial nine-point lead.
One thing is sure, however. Washington will be carefully following the referendum, and more interventions can be expected from the White House in order to sway the putative democratic exercise in favor of keeping Britain within the EU. Washington’s hegemonic ambitions depend on it.
For those interested in a more independent Europe, free from the burden of Washington’s geopolitical machinations, it could be argued that the best result would be for Britain to get out of the EU.
So, let doughty little Britain sail off into the Atlantic to the deluded anthem of «Britannia Rules the Waves». And then, maybe, Europe might begin to live in more peaceful relations with the rest of the world.