Monday, 26 June 2017
Alphen, Netherlands. 26 June. On rare occasions I reserve the right to re-publish a blog almost word for word if an event warrants it. As I write, Britain’s new super aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is about to set sail for the first time to begin sea trials in the North Sea. The cynic in me wonders that if this mighty ship might last longer than the country that built her. It is certainly the case that the politicians in London and elsewhere in the UK are trying their damnedest to reduce Britain. Rarely, has Britain been so badly-led, and rarely has an official opposition been so lost to the land of the strategic and political fairies. Yet this blog is about strategic fundamentals if it is about anything, and ‘QE’ is at least a statement of hope that at some point Britain will again get leaders who recognise such fundamentals, rather than merely playing at strategy. Right now, she sits in her Rosyth dock, engines humming and her 700 strong crew busily preparing her for her maiden voyage. At around midday she will sail under the massive Forth Railway Bridge, itself a signature British engineering achievement from a previous age.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is also far more than a ship. Displacing 65,000 tons the ‘QE’ is the first of Britain’s 2 new super aircraft carriers. Her flight deck is the size of 60 Wimbledon tennis courts or 3 World Cup pitches. When commissioned in 2017 she will carry up to 50 aircraft in a hangar that is the size of 60 Olympic-size swimming pools. She is twice the width and some 90 metres longer than her predecessor HMS Illustrious. She is also a potent symbol of British power, unity, alliance and partnership that will fly the White Ensign the most famous flag of the most famous navy in the world. Indeed, a navy that in many ways made the modern world. In tandem with her future sister-ship HMS Prince of Wales she will act as a hub for a new type of agile and mobile global reach military power projection that will assure and ensure maritime and land security across the globe.
HMS Queen Elizabeth will exert influence and effect across three strategic spaces – the peace-space, the security-space, and the battle-space. Able to reach 80% of the world’s population she will act in crises as diverse as disaster relief and help prevent and deter full-blown war which cannot be ruled out in the hyper-competitive twenty-first century.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of national unity. She was built in sections at 6 shipyards across the United Kingdom. Indeed, she is perhaps the most innovative ship ever built with each section bought to Rosyth to be welded together. As some in Scotland contemplate secession she is a potent symbol of what this old great gathering of peoples can still achieve in the world together.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of alliance. She is testament to Britain’s determination to inject real power into both NATO and the EU. As Americans complain about burden-sharing or the lack of it here is a European ally that in spite of many challenges is willing to invest in the highest-end of high-end military capabilities. Alongside the new Type 45 destroyers and Astute-class nuclear attack submarines joining or soon to join the Royal Navy this great ship will put Britain at the heart of NATO and EU task groups. Indeed, her very existence will underpin all the navies across both the Alliance and Union.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of partnership. Britain made an historic mistake in the early 1970s by focusing exclusively on Europe and what became the EU. Whether Britain stays or leaves the EU this ship will help re-invigorate Britain’s traditional partnerships with countries like Australia, India and Japan (see history). She will also help reinforce key partnerships with close, powerful friends such as France and Germany. Critically, she will help keep America strong where America needs to be strong as Washington faces a growing gap between what it needs to be able to do and what it can afford to do. To that end, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a vital partner of both the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps.
My belief in HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales has been absolute from the day they were conceived. This is not simply because of the power projection or fighting power the two ships will afford London or the Carrier-enabled Power Projection in the strategy-documents, or indeed because I favour the Royal Navy over the British Army or Royal Air Force. I do not. As I write in my recent book Little Britain (www.amazon.com) my belief in these ships is because of what they say about Britain and its future as a major power. This has nothing to do with Britannia ruling the waves, but rather the willingness of a twenty-first European state to confront political realism with imagination and determination built on the recognition that credible military capability still underpins all power and influence.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is a national strategic asset. She is an entirely appropriate statement of strategic ambition for one of the world’s leading political, economic and military powers and will serve Britain and its allies and partners out to 2060 and beyond. As such she will help reinvigorate the British strategic brand critical to keeping the West strong – the West that is today an idea rather than a place.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of my country; a ship and a country of which I am justly proud. HMS Queen Elizabeth is a big-picture ship of a big-picture country in a big-picture world. Let’s hope Britain really still is a big picture country.
Monday, 19 June 2017
“You didn't just pay lip service to the goal of overcoming the division of Europe and Germany... Rather, you put yourself at the forefront of those who encouraged us on the way to unity”.
The Unlikely Couple
Alphen, Netherlands. 19 June. They made an unlikely couple. The September 1984 picture of French President Francois Mitterand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who died last week, holding hands on the charnel ground of Verdun is an iconic European moment. One, a former French resistance fighter, and the other forced into the Hitler Youth in April 1945 at the very end of World War Two. For West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that was exactly the point. In that moment of reconciliation Kohl effectively completed the work of the Federal Republic’s first chancellor, the great Konrad Adenauer. Alongside his French colleagues Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet Adenauer had set out to ‘normalise’ Germany’s relationship with the rest of Europe by ensuring a European Germany, not a German Europe. Kohl completed that mission.
For all the symbolism of Verdun Kohl was more a manager of history than a creator of it. What are often touted as his two towering achievements, German reunification and the creation of the Euro, happened on his watch but were not envisioned by him. He also oversaw the history-loaded return of German political power from sleepy Bonn (Le Carré’s “A Small Town in Germany”) to the old Imperial capital Berlin. And yet none of these momentous events were part of any grand Kohl dessin. In 1989, when he heard that the Berlin Wall was being torn down he first wanted confirmation. He simply could not believe it was happening.
And yet Kohl seized his strategic moment with both of his huge hands. After a shaky start to reunification, when he initially refused to confirm the post-war German-Polish border, Kohl showed he had an increasingly certain political hand. With the crucial support of US President George H.W. Bush, he first reassured France, and then Britain and the other European partners that a reunited Germany would not seek to dominate Europe. He also moved quickly to cement reunification at home by offering East Germans parity between the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. It was a move that made little economic or financial sense, but very good political sense. He even sweetened Russia’s withdrawal from Central and Eastern Europe by providing huge amounts of aid to Moscow, although it failed to prevent the August 1991 fall of Gorbachev, and the final collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is perhaps Kohl’s pragmatism over the Euro which best demonstrates Kohl’s strategic and political art. He was prepared to do whatever he saw as necessary to secure what he saw as the German, and by extension the European interest. The two were often confused in the Kohl mind. He did not initially like the French idea of a common currency because it meant Germany giving up the Deutschmark, regarded by many Christian Democrats and wider society as the ultimate safeguard against the hyper-inflation of the inter-bellum that had helped pave the way to power for Hitler and the Nazis. However, he accepted the euro as the price Germany had to pay to ensure a reunified Germany was a European Germany.
Was Kohl anti-British? Kohl’s relationship with Britain was far less amicable than with either France or the US, and he accorded the British far less respect than he accorded the Russians. He also refused to accord the British the same respect he accorded the Americans for the liberation of Europe, as evinced by the closeness of his relationship to President Reagan. His relationship with that other great political titan of the period, Margaret Thatcher, was also infamously prickly. In a controversial February 1996 speech in Louvain, Belgium, Kohl revealed the extent to which World War Two defined his political creed. However, in so doing he upset the British by suggesting that European integration was “…in reality a question of war and peace in the twenty-first century”. At the same time he also understood the importance of keeping Britain in the ‘European Project’, and was prepared to make concessions in European treaties to that end. He would have deeply regretted Brexit.
In fact, my own modest brush with Kohl demonstrated to me that he was not at all anti-British. It also showed that his attitude towards the French was more nuanced than suggested by the public image. In 1996 I was taken to lunch in Paris on the Boulevard New York by a senior official during which a possible EU security and defence demarche to be led by Britain and France was discussed. The next day I travelled to London to discuss European defence with a senior member of prime minister-in-waiting Tony Blair’s team. As promised, I reported the conversation I had had in Paris verbatim, but added the codicil that Paris wished to keep Anglo-French discussions discreet.
Later that week I was due to travel to Bonn where I was to visit the Bundeskanzleramt (Chancellery) and meet Kohl’s senior foreign and security policy advisors. During my meeting in London I asked if I should mention the conversations I had had in Paris and London. My interlocutor said “of course”. Blair, like Kohl, was at the time keen to ‘reset’ British-German relations. When I got to Bonn I duly reported the Paris conversation to Chancellor Kohl’s senior foreign policy advisor. He laughed, “Don’t the French realise that we and the British do occasionally talk to each other?” The eventual result (in which I claim no role) was the 1998 St Malo Declaration and the 1999 Helsinki Declaration which paved the way for an enhanced EU role in security and defence.
German and European
There was much over which I disagreed with Kohl, not least his conflation at times of the German and European interest, a habit which afflicts German leaders to this day. He was also prone to missteps on the international stage that bordered on hubris. For example, he badly misinterpreted the 1991 break-up of Yugoslavia, and ignored British and French warnings with disastrous consequences. And yet is ledger is more positive than negative. A decade or so ago, when I was writing a book on post-war European security and defence for Oxford, which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced, I was struck by the importance of this man to Europe’s enduring stability.
Adenauer had once said that he was a German who would always be German, but that he was also a European who would always be European. For Adenauer read Kohl. In an April 1997 speech to commemorate the 1967 death of Konrad Adenauer Helmut Kohl quoted his predecessor. “The most important thing”, he said, “is courage”. Kohl might well have been speaking about himself.
He ended his life in his beloved Ludwigshafen in sadness and some might say anger, following the suicide of his wife and his forced removal from office at the hands of his protege, one Angela Merkel. Still, for me Helmut Kohl will always be remembered as a towering figure of post-war German and European politics, both literally and figuratively. As such he deserves to be respected because for a time he was the very Kohl-face of European history, and let’s face it, there are few such leaders around these days.
Thursday, 15 June 2017
“Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together”.
Nostalgia and Utopia
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 June. Some time ago I wrote that there are two places a political leader should never take a country; Nostalgia and Utopia. Next week Brexit negotiations begin between a weakened Theresa May and an apparently triumphalist Brussels. Are their grounds for any hope that an equitable Brexit can be reached and relatively quickly?
Many of my regular readers will know I harbour profound concerns about the EU, particularly the attitude of the Brussels elite to democracy. When I worked for the EU I too often got the sense that they saw themselves as infallible, latter day Habsburgs and Bourbons rolled into one. The European Commission saw itself as a kind of pre-Renaissance Vatican, the guardian of the One True Faith, with its more Europe at all costs beliefs all too often rubber-stamped by its very own Sacred College of Cardinals in the form of the European Parliament.
As an Englishman steeped in England’s long political culture I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that people can have power over my life, even though I never had the chance to vote for them. Had I been around in 1642 I would have most definitely been on the side of Parliament during the English Civil War. For me the ‘divine right’ of any ‘king’ is, and will always be, nonsense, however well-meaning. Brussels has certainly not stopped seeking ever more power for itself in the name of ‘Europe’.
Too often I also found that many of the Brussels elite were instinctively opposed to my country because they saw Britain as a break on their buro-imperialist ambitions. Too often I heard the very people meant to defend London’s position apologising for it in private. Even today I hear some eurocrats speak of Brexit as a kind of Great Purge that once complete will leave the road clear for Brussels to achieve the ‘broad sunlit upland’ of Political Union. Dream on!
And yet I campaigned for Remain. After a long think there were six main reasons. First, I still believe, to loosely quote Burke again, that enough good men and women exist in Europe to prevent the emergence of bureaucratic tyranny. Britain should be ‘in there’ fighting to return the EU to the people and the nation-states in which they still believe, and with which they still identify. Second, I do not believe the European nation-state is intrinsically conflictual and that most modern European states are quite capable of conducting their international affairs peacefully. Third, I have always believed in the need for a European institution, a European Community of States, and always will. Fourth, I foresaw the political mess in Britain today, which the political battle over Brexit has made worse. Fifth, free movement of people, and the three other fundamental freedoms enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, were realised by winning the Cold War, and would exist in some form EU or no. Finally, I looked at the bigger strategic picture. Given the threats to my friends in the Baltic States and across southern Europe I was convinced that on balance this was not the moment for Europe to yet again descend into another bout of self-flagellation.
Brexit has become far too ideological and that must now stop. I am sick and tired of hearing about ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ brexits from those who clearly do not understand how the EU works. I am tired of hearing Remoaners tell me the voice of ‘we’ the 48% who voted to remain must be ‘respected’, when what they really mean is that the voice of the 52% who voted to leave should now be discounted. I am sick and tired of hearing ‘hard’ Brexiteers saying Britain must have nothing more to do with the EU and that Britain can stand alone Lowe-like, whilst too many ‘soft’ Brexiteers seem all too happy to cast Britain into the worst of all EU worlds; subject to the rules, whims and prejudices of Brussels, but being outside of the EU having no influence over it. I am particularly tired of strategically-illiterate comparisons between tiny Norway and Switzerland, and far, far bigger Britain.
The simple truth is that Britain is part of the wider Europe, and the wider Europe desperately needs an engaged Britain. In London politicians of all shades of opinion and persuasion must put their foggy petty-fogging aside and come together to establish a negotiating position that is truly in the British national interest. On the Continent politicians must stop threatening a leading power many sons of which gave their lives for Europe’s freedom.
A Defining Moment
Brexit is a defining moment for both Britain and the EU. That is why on the eve of the Brexit negotiations I am calling for all responsible leaders on both sides of the Channel to come together in the name of the people of Britain and across the rest of Europe. The result of the June 2016 Brexit referendum must be respected for what it was; a democratic, legitimate vote. If Brexit goes the way of 2005 French and Dutch referenda on the Constitutional Treaty, and the 2008 Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and the voice of the people is again ignored by the elite in the name (of course) of ‘the common good’, then the EU will be revealed to be little more than a Bourbonist experiment. If British leaders do not recognise the vital importance of the EU to Britain, and Britain’s vital role in helping to keep Europe safe, stable and secure, then the Little Britain about which I warned in my 2015 book will have become reality.
Like it or no, Britain has always had a special place IN the EU. And, if both sides are to agree an equitable Brexit deal in the interests of all then Britain must be accorded a special relationship WITH the EU. For Britain that will demand pragmatism, supporting the EU budget, and accepting some compromise on sovereignty. Absolute sovereignty is enjoyed by no state. As Thomas Hobbes once pointed out, only anarchy affords such sovereignty, but it is liberty only at the price of security.
If not, if Brexit falls into the chasm between British nostalgists and European utopians then the future for all looks bleak. For once, just for once, can politicians please put the wider interests of the people before narrow sectarianism? Then, the art of negotiation might just paint a new European masterpiece that is more Canaletto than Jackson Pollock.
Brexit: for the sake of Britain and Europe.
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
“It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate purpose, on one single purpose, and all your skills and the valour of my soldiers to exterminate the treachery of the English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army”.
Army Order from Kaiser Wilhelm, Headquarters, Aix La Chapelle, 19 August, 1914
Reflections on European Defence
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 June. The cat is out of the bag. Queen Angela suggested on 28 May, in the wake of President Trump’s less than successful visit to NATO that “we Europeans have to take our own [defence] fate into our own hands”. She also suggested that America and Britain were now unreliable allies. On 7 June, the day after the anniversary of D-Day, the European Commission launched a “Reflection Paper on the Future of European Defence” which called for a “Security and Defence Union” to be realised by 2025. Will it work?
Now, I can reasonably claim to be somewhat of an expert on this subject as I wrote my doctorate at the European University Institute in Florence on the issue, together with a book for Oxford University Press, both of which are (of course) brilliant and very reasonably priced. Add to them countless articles all of which can be said to follow a similar theme of ‘for effing’s sake Europe get your effing defence act together before it is too effing late’. On the face of it, the ‘reflections’ paper is an important statement designed to kick-start yet more discussions about the future of Europe’s defence. The central tenet of the paper that Europeans really must do more and spend more on their own defence is undeniable.
Taken together with the 2016 Global Strategy and the European Defence Action Plan, as well published plans for a new European Defence Fund which came out the same day as the Reflections paper, the EU is certainly not short of security and defence jaw jaw these days. The Commission paper does not lack for ambition. “This reflection paper considers the issues that matter for the future of our security and defence. It does so by looking beyond current debates and decisions. Instead, it considers underlying structural trends, presents different scenarios of possible futures for European security and defence by 2025, and maps our possible ways forward”. The paper then offers a series of strategic and political ‘drivers’ supported by a convincing set of figures to reinforce the central case of more Europe doing more defence.
Three EU Defence Scenarios
The Commission offers three scenarios. “Security and Defence Co-operation”, calls for a more EU-focused security and defence effort, albeit on a voluntary basis. “Shared Security and Defence” goes a step further and calls for greater financial and operational “solidarity” and some form of defence integration, whatever that is. “Common Security and Defence” calls for fully-fledged European defence integration with a European Security and Defence Union to be realised, possibly as early as 2025. It is this scenario which is the Commission’s real objective as all three scenarios are embedded in a chapter entitled “Europe in 2025 – Moving towards a Security and Defence Union”.
It is also the eventual creation of a European Army for which this scenario implicitly calls that the logic starts to become self-defeating and a cold reality “in russet mantle clad” begins to dawn. First, the paper rightly highlights the fact that whilst the US spends 3.3% GDP on defence, the average across EU member-states is only 1.34%, a figure inflated by the roughly 2% GDP spent on defence by the UK, France, Poland and a couple of others. In other words, to make an ‘independent’ EU security and defence union credible (and that is the ambition of the paper) with all the forces, resources, infrastructures, headquarters, assets, logistics, and enablers ALL EU member-states would need to spend at least between 3-4% GDP on defence, even if the synergies the Commission claims for a common defence were realised. And, by the way, the member-states would also be expected to give all their defence money to some form of defence Commission. Funny that. NATO is finding it hard to get most of the same states to spend 2% GDP on defence under the agreed-to Defence Investment Pledge. Any takers?
The paper also points out that whilst the US currently spends €108,322 per soldier, sailor and airman on equipment procurement and research and technology, EU member-states spend on average only €27,639. In fact, the situation is even worse than the paper suggests because some 90% of the EU figure is made up of Britain, France and Germany alone. NATO is also having trouble getting the same states to spend 20% of their annual defence budgets on new equipment. To even begin to match the Americans each EU member-state would need to spend upwards of 40% of massively increased defence expenditure on new equipment each year. Again, under Commission planning member-states would also be expected to provide the EU with all that money and decision-making powers over defence planning and decide which defence industries in which to invest as well as those to cut. Any takers?
The paper also includes the UK in its figures. Britain has now triggered Article 50 to leave the EU by 2019, and even if there is a transitional period by 2025, which is the date the Commission is targeting for a European Security and Defence Union, Britain will no longer be in the EU. Without the UK the figures the Commission bandies around in the paper become less fact and more a great work of European fiction. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in March, the hard reality for an EU that seeks to take on the mantle of defending Europe is that “…collective defence in Europe is NATO’s main responsibility and especially after Brexit I think it’s obvious that we need NATO and the European Union working together, not competing, because 80 % of NATO’s defence expenditure will be non EU”.
Ultimately the paper fails precisely because it identifies the enormity of the security and defence challenges Europeans face and in so doing unwittingly confirms that security and defence can only be provided by a strong transatlantic alliance. That means an adapted NATO should and must remain the epicentre of Europe’s security and defence, albeit in close partnership with the EU. It will be an adapted NATO that takes as its start-point not the creation of European Security and Defence Union, but rather the equitable sharing of risks and burdens with the US and Canada (Ottawa last week committed to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2025).
Defending Europe or dismantling it?
In conclusion, the Commission’s reflection paper is wholly unrealistic even as a premise for a discussion over the short to medium term future of European security and defence. As such it is yet another doomed-to-fail attempt to re-create the failed 1952-1954 European Defence Community. The likely outcome of this demarche will be some form of hybrid common and collective force which would see European states pooling and sharing far more of their defence effort, and in so doing making them ever more interdependent. On the one hand this would be good, but come a crisis all member-states of the future British-less EU 7 would need to agree to its use. Agile? Responsive? No chance.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong about the EU considering its role in the future defence of Europe. The problem with this paper is that it is has everything to do with the Euro-federalist ambition to replace the nation-state and very little to do with the sound defence of Europe. Indeed, for the Commission’s vision of a European Security and Defence Union to be realised it would need a fully-fledged European government. I wonder who that might be. Consequently, this latest attempt to lead Europeans to defence ‘independence’ from the Americans would result at best in a contemptible European army, held in particular contempt by those two Old Unreliables American and Britain, and dismissed with disdain by Russia, China and much of the rest of the world.
There is a twist to ‘ESDU’. It might actually help strengthen European defence if it goes no further than ‘Security and Defence Co-operation’ or ‘Shared Security and Defence’, especially if by promoting synergies it helps Europeans achieve NATO’s 2%/20% Defence Investment Pledge. However, for that aim to be realised the EU would have to accept that its defence ambition must go no further than becoming the European pillar of the Alliance, and ultimately during crises subordinate to it. Any takers?
The question the paper poses is the right one; how to get Europeans to generate more defence. The answer, sadly and irresponsibly, as is so often the case when the Commission uses defence as a means to a super-state end, completely wrong.
Friday, 9 June 2017
“When William was our king declared,
To ease the nation’s grievance;
With this new wind about I steered,
And swore to him allegiance;
Old principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance;
Passive obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance”.
The Vicar of Bray
Alphen, Netherlands. 9 June. Well, that went well didn’t it? This week my car engine blew up in deepest France and lays forlorn in a French garage awaiting repatriation to the Netherlands. Yesterday, having called a snap election, Theresa May’s parliamentary majority blew up and she lays forlorn just short of an overall majority. So, what are the strategic implications of yesterday’s British General Election for Brexit, the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and for British power and influence in general?
Sitrep: On the face of it the result looks like a disaster for the Tories. It is clearly not good. As of 11 am this morning the Conservatives are the largest party likely to gain 318 or 319 parliamentary seats (down 12), 7 seats short of an overall majority, Labour is on 261 (up 29), the Scottish Nationalists have 35 seats (down 18), and the Liberal Democrats have won 12 seats (up 4). However, the results of two smaller parties in Northern Ireland could well hold the key to who holds power, and thus the keys to 10 Downing Street. Sinn Fein now hold 7 seats, but as Irish Republicans they never take their seats in Parliament, which in effect reduces the overall majority the Conservatives need to govern to 322 seats. This casts the 10 seat pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (the clue is in the party’s name) in the role of king (or possibly queen) maker. Or, to put it another way, the Conservatives could well gain a de facto majority albeit at the high price the DUP will undoubtedly demand, and one that is inherently vulnerable to alarums and shocks.
Brexit: It is now more likely that Brexit will be softer rather than harder with Britain in effect ending up in the European Free Trade Association. Next week formal Brexit negotiations will begin between Britain and the EU. Theresa May had hoped to gain a significant majority to strengthen her hand in what are going to be tough negotiations. That plan now lies in tatters. However, power in Britain is unlike any other European country. It is likely May (or some other Conservative) will form a government, and given that the DUP are for a hard Brexit, and given that the Fixed Term Parliament Act now aids the Tories, it is likely that the biggest danger to the British negotiating position will come from the pro-EU lobby within the Conservative Party itself. Equally, given the shock most Tory MPs have suffered overnight it is also likely that the threat of being seen to be divided will enforce some discipline. Perhaps the biggest Brexit challenge for the next prime minister, during what will be a minority government, will come from the unelected House of Lords (second chamber) which has an in-built anti-Tory majority.
The Union: A glance at the electoral map this morning suggests a shored-up Union with Britain, for the first time since Margaret Thatcher, beginning to look again like a genuinely united-ish kingdom. One of the many paradoxes of this paradoxical election has been the excellent performance of the Scottish Conservatives. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that Ruth Davidson and her Scottish Tories saved the UK Conservative Party from catastrophic defeat. For the moment at least the Scottish Nationalist are in full-scale retreat. However, there is a caveat to this analysis. Should the Conservatives fail to form a minority government and Her Majesty the Queen asks Jeremy Corbyn to form a coalition then the Scottish Nationalists would need to be part of that grouping and they would almost certainly demand Indyref2.
British power and influence: This election does nothing for Britain’s influence in Europe or the world. Britain is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, a top five military power, and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. However, after three close elections and two destabilising referenda the British political and high-bureaucratic class is riven from top to bottom. This schism is reinforced by a British civil service that was politicised under Tony Blair and which now often leans to the left of the political spectrum. The result is that whilst Britain has an economy more than twice the size of that of President Putin’s Russia, London finds it exceptionally hard these days to leverage its fundamental power into strategic influence. That weakness will now continue and most likely worsen, which is something the US, NATO and other Allies will need to contend with.
Assessment: Yesterday was certainly a victory for British democracy. The turn-out was by British standards exceptionally high for a General Election, with people under 25 unusually committed. Prime Minister May is probably fatally damaged as she oversaw a shambolic election campaign which saw a hard left Labour leader achieve 41% of the popular vote. However, for all the shambles the Tories won the election with 44% of the popular vote, which in the past would have afforded her a healthy parliamentary majority.
Conclusion: For me, an Oxford historian, maybe yesterday was the day that after years of retreating from power Little Britain finally emerged. There will be a relatively weak Conservative prime minister in Downing Street at a moment when Britain needs strong and stable leadership. On those terms Theresa May has failed and must pay the price for her self-imposed failure. She will certainly never fight another election. One reason she failed was because she actually tried to tell the British people some hard facts of fiscal life during an election campaign. Millions of Britons told her they preferred the fantasy economics of Jeremy Corbyn. And yet, with the support of the DUP and a de facto 13-15 seat majority, expect the Conservatives to stumble on in government for some time to come.
Tuesday, 30 May 2017
“The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over. I experienced that in the last a few days, and therefore I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries. But we need to know that we have to fight for our own future and destiny as Europeans.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel
Alphen, Netherlands. 30 May. Is this the moment when historians will look back and say that the post-World War Two political settlement was finally dismantled? The moment when Berlin finally crossed the threshold between a European Germany and a German Europe? In a speech at a Munich campaign rally (no, I am not implying a spurious historical ‘allergy’) Chancellor Merkel implied that whilst Germany/Europe (the two are interchangeable in the German political mind) are on the way up, the Americans and British are on their way out, and the Russians must somehow be both in and out at one and the same time. The German hokey-cokey? She is certainly playing with history. In 1949 NATO’s first secretary-general Lord Bruce Ismay is reputed to have said that the purpose of NATO was, “…to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. In fact there is no evidence he did say that. In my book, “A Chronology of European Security and Defence” (Oxford: Oxford University Press), which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced, I do not include the quote.
Does she have a point? In spite of the shrill and predictable response to her comments in parts of the media my first reaction is that Chancellor Merkel may have a point in spite of the fact they are driven mainly by her distaste for President Trump. After all, both the US and UK have become increasingly idiosyncratic actors over recent years. As the United States has been forced into a form of strategic isolation it has to an extent also lost its strategic compass – everywhere and yet nowhere all of the time. As once Big Britain has become Little Britain (see my brilliant and very reasonably-priced book at Amazon) London has looked ever more like ‘mini-me’ in an Austen Powers movie.
Does the ‘we’ in this German vision thing really exist? America and Britain stopped being post-war occupiers of the Federal Republic on May 5, 1955, at which point the ‘FRG’ became a fully-fledged NATO member. And, yet for over sixty years first Bonn and then Berlin has wanted the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, ‘in’ Europe precisely to calm concerns that other Europeans might have about German power. Has this suddenly changed? Moreover, one cause of the strategic malaise in both Washington and London has been the refusal of European allies to get serious about security and defence. All the NATO Allies were meant to be in Afghanistan sharing risk and cost together. However, as I saw first-hand most of the European Allies only played at Afghanistan, Germany to the fore. Is ‘Europe’ really about to become a serious security actor under German leadership?
Is Europe willing to bear the full cost of German leadership? If Chancellor Merkel really is implying that now is the moment when Europeans, in the rubber-stamping guise of the EU, really should replace US with German leadership in defence (Germany has long been the financial and economic leader of ‘Europe’) then she must be under no illusion as to the cost. A Europe that could defend itself would demand each EU member-state spend not 2% GDP on defence but 3% GDP on defence at the very minimum and irrespective of how deep future political integration. Believe me, I am an expert.
Is Germany willing to bear the full cost of German leadership? It is this issue of the cost to Germany that reveals the bluff in Chancellor Merkel’s remarks. Let’s say Germany did decide to ‘lead’ European defence by spending, say, 2% GDP on defence in line with the NATO Defence Investment Pledge. That would in turn mean Berlin spending $70 billion on defence, some $15 billion more than the UK. At this past week’s GLOBSEC conference I put that to senior Europeans from across the continent. Almost all expressed doubts whether that would be possible for Germany or even desirable, with the most concerned being themselves German!
Can Germany afford to lead Europe? Germany did exceedingly well out of the Euro in the wake of its creation in 1999 because the Eurozone was a de facto zollverein that boosted German exports by offsetting high production costs. At the time Berlin actively encouraged the spending binge by other Europeans on German products to help Germany’s economy recover. That was then, this is now. Real German leadership would thus see Berlin today agreeing to debt mutualisation, i.e. to share the debts of all other EU member-states in order to enable millions of fellow Europeans to escape growth-killing debt. And yet Germany’s ‘Europeanness’ seems to come to a firm stop at the border between German money and European debt with the rather lame excuse offered that Berlin cannot be responsible for errors made elsewhere. In other words, Berlin clearly understands that the cost of German leadership to Germany would be astronomical.
Will Germany ever escape history? World War Two still runs deep through European politics, and nowhere more so than in Germany. For example, when European leaders talk about immigration they do so haunted by the Holocaust. Even though there clearly was no link Chancellor Merkel’s disastrous ‘wir schaffen das’ open door migration policy was driven in part by her sense that Germany had a chance to make making amends for a past disaster. Sadly, two disasters do not a sound strategy make.
Can Europe survive German angst? When German leaders talk European defence they are haunted by Germany’s past. Even though Germany is a completely different place today than the Germany of the past German leaders are still acutely sensitive (and rightly so) to Old Germany’s role in both world wars. Unfortunately, the practical security and defence of contemporary European citizens still too often gets lost in the ether of historical angst. As Germany comes to dominate Europe (ever so nicely) so the many angsts from which German leaders suffer are also being imposed on Europe.
Which brings me to the real paradox of Chancellor Merkel’s comments. In 2005 I landed myself in trouble (and not for the first or last time) when I wrote in the International Herald Tribune that for fifty years the US and UK had told Germany not to do too much because of World War Two, but for the past ten years Germany has told the US and UK it cannot do too much because of World War Two. If Germany leads Europe too much Germany itself will reignite the very ‘German question’ that Berlin has tried so hard to avoid for so long; how can powerful Germany be legitimately embedded in weak Europe?
The hard truth is that ‘unreliability’, or rather a lack of automaticity in transatlantic relations, is the new normal - Trump or no Trump. Whilst the Americans and British are indeed perhaps less reliable as allies than they once were, Germany can also be pretty unreliable when it suits. This is because Berlin lacks any real sense of solidarity, is clearly unwilling to bear the real cost of European leadership, and too often confuses the European ‘interest’ with the German ‘interest’. And, it is not at all clear that other Europeans are willing to accept German leadership all of the time. Until that changes Germany will continue to play the game of pretend leadership in Europe as Chancellor Merkel did this week and in so doing reinforce the sense of mainstream political failure which the ‘populists’ are only too happy to exploit.
A German Europe or a European Germany? The simple truth is that contemporary Europe needs contemporary German leadership, but German leadership also needs America and Britain. This is for the sake of Europe, but above all for the sake of Germany.
So, whilst ‘Europe’ really does need Germany up, it also needs America and Britain alongside, with Europe as a whole finally getting its security and defence act together. Russia? For the moment 'out', at least until Moscow stops playing silly strategic buggers.