Europe Matters in the British Election

John Podesta argues that the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States is still important for transatlantic ties.

Conservative party leader David Cameron reaches out to shake hands with a supporter as he leaves the Battersea Power Station with his wife Samantha. (AP/Oli Scarf)
Conservative party leader David Cameron reaches out to shake hands with a supporter as he leaves the Battersea Power Station with his wife Samantha. (AP/Oli Scarf)

Bill Clinton would always try and stop Democrats from making false choices. This was an important political lesson that served his presidency well. Today, in the United Kingdom, of the three main parties it is only the Conservative Party that has fallen into the false choices trap. And, they have done so on a fundamental issue of British foreign policy: whether to be Atlanticist or pro-European.  

To present Atlanticism and Europeanism as incompatible options is to fundamentally misunderstand the future of transatlantic politics in the modern world.

The rise of China and the ever-growing importance of emerging economies such as India and Brazil have changed the calculus of global politics. Europe should remain an important partner for the United States in the years to come. We share similar values, interests, and world views. We have been long-time allies for a reason. But, while Britain has traditionally been our privileged partner across the Atlantic, it is questionable whether this could be sustained should the country turn its back on the European project. America’s “special relationship” needs to be with a Britain that is at the heart of, and making the case for reform and openness in, the European Union.

Some in Britain now claim the special relationship between our two countries is little more than a too-cozy rapport between our nation’s leaders. That is a great shame, because in fact the ties that bind us are much deeper and built on a shared intellectual and cultural heritage and a willingness to lead. It was the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and George C. Marshall that helped our two countries shape the post-World War II era, securing the prospects for peace and prosperity in the decades that followed.

Half a century later, that same spirit and our common vision of an open and peaceful Europe spurred President Clinton to work with the governments of John Major and Tony Blair to help ensure the expansion of democracy and human rights extended to all Europeans. What is needed now is continued British leadership in Europe so that the aspiration of membership of the European Union remains open to countries from the Baltic to the Bosporus.

Worryingly, under David Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative Party’s traditional Euro-skepticism has become more extreme. Consider, for example, his decision to have Conservative members leave the European People’s Party—the mainstream center-right grouping within the European Parliament that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP—to form a new parliamentary group with a maverick collection of racist, homophobic, and xenophobic members of the European Parliament. Beyond the obvious political symbolism this entails—it is hardly good for Britain’s prestige when its European parliamentarians sit with those who have argued the election of a black U.S. president hails the end of civilization—the decision also illustrates Cameron’s willingness to forgo political influence to placate extreme elements of his own party.

The Conservatives are now very likely to punch below their weight in European debates, leaving others to shape the future direction of the EU. Moreover, pledging to "repatriate" powers to Britain—a commitment that will require the unanimous consent of all 27 EU governments—Cameron’s Conservatives look set to expend what little influence they will have on counterproductive and unachievable measures rather than positive steps forward.

U.S. frustrations with the pace and nature of EU decision making aside, the United States has an interest in a Europe that is open and not protectionist, in a Europe capable and willing to shoulder greater responsibility on the world stage, and in a Europe that pursues internal economic reform to ensure market integration remains a catalyst for growth. While the appointment of a president and foreign representative of the European Council are important institutional improvements, these posts are in their infancy. Institutional reform is also no guarantee of policy coherence. American hopes for a more dynamic and equal European partner are still much less likely to be realized if Britain is on the fringes of the debate about the future of the union.

The shared challenges we now face require effective multilateralism not outdated bilateralism or unilateralism. Over the last year, it was the hitherto unprecedented levels of multilateral policy coordination that prevented the financial market collapse on Wall Street from plunging the global economy into an economic depression similar to that experienced during the 1930s. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Obama led that international response through a commitment to concerted and co-coordinated economic stimulus packages—an approach the British Conservatives openly opposed. But, the economic recovery they engineered is still fragile. Strong leadership is required to ensure we stay the course, and that the recent growth witnessed in European and global economies continues.  

Looking to the challenges ahead, one also has to question what role David Cameron will be able to play in shaping the EU’s policies toward China and the emerging economies when it comes to mitigating the effects of potentially catastrophic climate change. Nor do we know if a Cameron-led government could be an effective advocate when it comes to convincing other European partners to take seriously their responsibilities for providing additional forces, trainers, and financial and political backing for our joint efforts in Afghanistan. On both climate and security, Cameron’s Conservatives may have respectable views and policies. What is now in question is whether they will have the political heft in Europe to be an effective ally of the United States. It’s a question that today is making the Washington policymaking community more than a little anxious.

John D. Podesta is President and Chief Executive of the Center for American Progress.

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