Sat on a shelf a few metres away from me is a box containing the various military medals won by my relatives over previous generations. The medals criss-cross Europe, coming from different countries, over the three wars that had a German-French conflict at their centre. To British eyes that count of three wars may seem odd at first, but for the German and French politicians building new European structures in the aftermath of the Second World War, their heritage was one of three wars – the Franco-German war of 1870 and then the two World Wars.
For them something drastic was needed to stop the dreadful arrival of conflict three generations in a row, each time on a bigger, longer and bloodier scale. Moreover, the wars were not started despite popular opinion, for they were all popular to start with.
That background helps explain two of the defining features of the European project – the determination of French and German politicians to stick together with each other and a sense that whilst democracy is good and welcome, and a vital antidote to the grotesque internal horrors of the early twentieth century dictatorships, the European project is about binding countries together rather than about giving people more democratic control over international affairs.
Add in another, far more recent, event – Brown winning out over Blair in keeping Britain out of the Euro (the closest Britain got to joining, for under Major that was never likely) – and Britain’s isolation after the last Euro summit is no sudden departure but rather a sudden, stark reminder of the quieter trends that have long been going on. The summit did not create those trends, however sharply it illustrated them.
Germany and France are, for reasons of history and economics, desperate both to stick together and to save the Euro. It was never essential to do more than try a bit to make nice to a country that is outside the Euro and whose largest political party has so often been hostile to so much European work. A country, moreover, whose leader chose to take his political party out of European alliance with mainstream continental parties and who had done precious little alliance building over the previous years with the key sources of power.
When France or Germany can wheel in Britain as an ally in their jostling with each other, Britain can exert some successful leverage, but fundamentally a different history and being out of the Euro has always made it the dispensable one of the trio.
More crafty negotiation by Cameron might have avoided the stark outcome of the summit, but the failure of his negotiating tactics did not cause the rifts. It simply shone a sharp light on the long standing political dynamic at the heart of Europe.
What the British government asked for at the European summit was not unpalatable to ardent pro-Europeans – Sarah Ludford MEP called it “reasonable” and Graham Watson MEP went one step further to call it “perfectly reasonable”.
But starting with that negotiating list, Cameron’s tactics at the summit did go off the rails, especially in turning down of the deal suggested by the President of the European Council only then to see the whole room turn against Cameron. Talking to people who saw Cameron’s support team after the talks broke down, they seemed genuinely shocked that they negotiating had turned out so badly and senior Liberal Democrats have been extremely critical of Cameron’s negotiating tactics at the summit. That the Lib Dem Deputy Head of Press has been retweeting today’s Independent story about Clegg’s fury over how Cameron conducted the talks is a pretty strong steer as to how accurate that story is. As one Lib Dem told The Observer:
He could not believe that Cameron hadn’t tried to play for more time. A menu of choices wasn’t deployed as a negotiating tool but instead was presented as a take it or leave it ultimatum. That is not how he [Clegg] would have played Britain’s hand.
But if you have allies who want talks to succeed with you as part of the outcome, when you dig yourself into such a hole people come to help pull you out. That is what would have happened if France or Germany had got into a hole. In Britain’s case, people did not come rushing to pull Britain out, instead they were happy to walk away from the hole.
As for the fallout, it is riddled with ironies. If the summit’s fiscal deal works and saves the Euro, that will continue the trend towards Britain being the outsider, but avoiding economic meltdown on the continent will be good news for our own economy. If the deal fails, then Cameron’s unwillingness to back it will look better, but the cost to the British economy will be great.
And that is what really matters and is really at stake at the moment: the Euro and the continent’s economy. The summit has not broken Britain’s position in Europe. Whether its steps are enough to save the continent’s economy from being broken is the big question. On that, the jury is very firmly still out.
Here’s the coverage from this morning’s BBC TV about Nick Clegg’s reaction to the summit and then an interview with myself. I do like the big picture of a glaring Cameron staring down at me part way through…!