The UK should be less ‘Western’ and more ‘global’

The UK should use the economic crisis to look beyond the Atlantic to reinvent its global policy and identity.

David Cameron
David Cameron’s veto of plans to modify EU treaties left some Britons ‘sputtering in horror’ [GETTY/GALLO] 

Cambridge, United Kingdom – Liberal Britain is in a state of outrage. In the shoot-from-the-hip style that has become the hallmark of his government, Prime Minister David Cameron used his veto in Brussels last week. He stopped German and French plans to revise EU treaties at the cost of British isolation from Europe.

Ostensibly, Cameron was trying to protect the interests of the City of London from further European financial regulation. But the gleeful manner in which he signalled the threat of his veto before the meeting indicated that Cameron sought the bust-up with Europe. Certainly, the interests of the City would be much better served by the UK remaining at the European negotiating table it has walked away from.

Cameron is foolish to pander to the anti-EU sentiment in his own party and in the country at large. Stoked by years of absurd and incendiary coverage of EU affairs in the tabloid press, the “Euro-sceptic” right is unlikely to be appeased by vetoing the plan for fiscal union of the Eurozone countries. Tory backbenchers and their nationalist allies will continue to demand further separation of the UK from the EU. Meanwhile, Germany and France will move ahead with their plans on an inter-governmental basis.

All of this has left the Liberal Democrats and other British supporters of Europe sputtering in horror. For Paddy Ashdown, Cameron’s veto was a “catastrophically bad move”. Many on Britain’s centre-left long have seen Brussels as a counter-weight to right-wing populism at home. It was Europe that forced human rights legislation on Westminster; Europe that was to properly regulate health and safety; and Europe that would moderate the UK’s pro-US foreign policy.

British liberals now fear being left alone with their home grown Tories and a Murdoch-owned press that is helping turn the financially squeezed white British working classes into a racist, nativist, and thoroughly reactionary political force. They fear also that the UK will now be forced to tow a line even closer to its partner on the other side of the Atlantic, the US.

However valid these fears, they take far too sanguine a view of the leviathan that is Europe.

At its core, Europe has always been a capitalist project, and is at its most successful as a single market regulated by unelected officials. The EU’s social agenda pales in significance to its economic powers, and as a diplomatic and military actor it has never achieved real weight as a “force for good”. Much less noticed is the EU’s brutal anti-immigration policy. It has built a gulag of concentration camps across North Africa and prefers to let migrants drown in the Mediterranean rather than admit them to Europe.

It would seem that both the left and the right in the UK hold fantastical views about the EU. The centre left has mistaken it for social democracy. The right fails to appreciate that underneath the pomp, circumstance and layers of bureaucracy, the EU is all about free market capitalism. Indeed, what Merkel and Sarkozy are trying to do is to hardwire into Europe the same anti-Keynesian policies of austerity and debt reduction that are at the heart of Cameron’s own economic policies at home.

These fantasies about Europe help hide the profoundly limited vision of Britain’s ruling classes. This is a vision unequal to the challenges of the coming decades which will see the relative decline of the West and the advent of an increasingly multi-polar world.

At the centre of this vision is a debate about which Western partner the UK should decline with. The liberals would prefer to decline with Europe; the right wing would prefer to go down with the US.

A country with a heritage as a global trading empire, with deep and profound connections to places and peoples around the world, can only imagine itself “somewhere in the mid-Atlantic”, as Nick Clegg put it.

It is the choice between the EU and the US that must be rejected for reasons of realpolitik. The growing economies and rising powers of the coming decades are located in the global South, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Britain is uniquely poised to deepen its relations with its former colonies, and to serve as a bridge for commerce and influence between North and South, East and West.

In order to do so, Britain must break out of its self-imposed Atlanticist trap. The situation is ripe for a bold re-imagining of British identity and purpose in the world. To be British means to encapsulate both sides of the imperial histories that made the modern world. Despite the racism and nastiness of Cameron’s Tories, Britain exercises profound powers of attraction and affection in many parts of the world. This is the basis upon which the UK should build a new global policy and an identity to go with it.

Such a global vision does not mean the UK should give up its positions of influence in Washington or Brussels. It should leverage them with new special relationships with rising powers in Africa and Asia. The UK needs to become a little less “Western” and a little more “Global”.

To be sure, Cameron failed to think through the consequences of his actions last week. The UK must regain its seat at the table in Brussels. But the reason to do so is not to outflank the British right so that social policies can be implemented at home. Rather, Britain’s influence in Europe is a key pivot of its global power. Britain’s European policy should be about advocating for the interests of the non-European world. In doing so, the UK will make itself the indispensible node in an interconnected world.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.