Letter from London: Britain in Europe-Half - Hearted and Ambivalent Forever?

Article excerpt

Last May, British Prime Minister Tony Blair traveled to the now sleepy city of Aachen, nestling on the Dutch-German border close to Belgium. He went there to receive, in the historic capital of the Carolingian Empire, the appropriately named Charlemagne Prize for services to the latest project for European integration. To be sure, Mr. Blair's contribution to the twentieth-century version of United Christendom has been to date rather more piecemeal (one might also add more peaceful) than the great medieval emperor's. More pointedly still, his prize marked no major change in Britain's contemporary relations with continental Europe. In fact, it conferred no additional powers, just a touch of kudos and a lot of money, on Mr. Blair himself. It was not even without recent precedent. Sir Edward Heath, surely even to his enemies-perhaps especially to his enemies--an altogether more worthy recipient of the award, had been duly honored nearly two decades before. Only the most optimistically disposed can really believe that no one else, suitably elevated and seemingly deserving, will not be singled out for such praise in the near future.

But, ever the polite Scotch gentleman and perhaps even enthusiastic about the moment, Mr. Blair marked the occasion by saluting his benefactors in no mean style. For he chose this occasion to make if not a substantial commitment then certainly a portentous pledge. He vowed to end "fifty years of half-heartedness and ambivalence in Britain's relations with Europe." Suitably flattered, his hosts were notably impressed. And so too were many of his own countrymen. But not all of them. For, as is well known, the British today are divided-- apparently as never before--into Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Unsurprisingly, the Europhiles--leading members of the Labour Party, ageing Tory grandees, the entire Liberal Democratic Party, leaders of the business community and bien pensants from all walks of life-- welcomed the prime minister's visionary words. Equally unsurprisingly--the Eurosceptics--marginalized members of the Labour Party, Tory rank-and-file, right-wing newspaper editors, and rebarbative nationalists up an d down the land--denounced his implied treachery.

In that way, they spoke and acted in a manner precisely according to each one's caricature of the other. Europhiles self-consciously embrace the "European project," however they define it. At the very least, they enjoin a constructive British involvement in its future evolution, to whatever state that might be. Some, on occasion explicitly but more commonly according to the implications of inertia, actually look forward to a United States of Europe. Eurosceptics reject any Grand Plan for further European integration or, certainly, any British subjection to such a plan. They look suspiciously upon any development with the European Union beyond the material benefits of continental free trade. And finally, they argue for--some even yearn to restore--an independent, sovereign influence for the United Kingdom in the world. Characteristically, Europhiles think of themselves as civilized and cosmopolitan, open-minded about the world while being realistic in matters of international relations and world peace. They look upon Eurosceptics as blinkered philistines, hopelessly nostalgic about post-imperial glories and even dangerous in their isolationist attitudes to Britain's allies and its wider trading partners. Eurosceptics, on the contrary, regard their own vision of the future as patriotic yet hardheaded: reluctant to give up British political traditions for European bureaucracy, yet willing to embrace the emergence of economic giants in the Far East. Rejecting the charge of "Little Englanders," they point to a historic British commitment to free trade, which might yet integrate the whole globe, not just Western Europe. They see Europhiles as defeatist about Britain's future and misguided about the real possibilities of viable European political union--even, in the matter of European armies and a European foreign policy, as pernicious fantasists. …