Wither Atlantic Bridge?By Philip Gannon on 7 March 2014
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask the American Ambassador to the UK about the proposed 2017 EU referendum. His diplomatic answer emphasised that it was a British choice but if you were to ask America, the UK’s ‘best friend’, it would be better if Britain remained a part of the EU. Cameron himself has stated that it is his desire to stay in the EU under the right conditions but would campaign to leave the regional organisation if he was unable to bring powers back from Brussels. Although the debate on Britain’s position in the EU is largely an economic and social affair, it does pose significant questions about Britain’s relations with the other side of the Atlantic.
The notion of the UK as an Atlantic Bridge is one that has been regularly exercised since the start of the 21st Century. This Bridge has successfully brought Europe and America together after the 9/11 terror attacks as well as during the outbreak of the recent global financial crisis. It is important therefore, to consider the impact David Cameron’s foreign policies might have on Britain’s position between America and Europe. To an extent, Cameron was able to display the qualities of an Atlantic Bridge during the Libya crisis. Nevertheless, any collaboration between Europe and America were limited.
The rising that took place against Colonel Gadhafi in 2011 represented the first major security engagement for the Western powers since the Iraq war and highlighted the emerging shifts in US and European interests. These diverging positions were visible as Cameron and French President Sarkozy displayed open support for taking tough action to aid the Libyan rebels in their removal of Gadhafi while in contrast, President Obama displayed a far cooler approach to using military force. Although coordinated action took place, differences soon began to emerge between the American and European approaches. The US supplied a hard and powerful response to put in place the UN sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, to weaken the Gadhafi regime’s air superiority over the rebels. However, once this no-fly zone had been installed, it was Britain and France that engaged in a longer and more hands on approach to the conflict by providing troops on the ground to offer guidance to the Libyan rebels. It took a united effort from Britain and France to gain support from the US on Libya but it was still not enough to develop a long term commitment.
The Syrian crisis has further emphasised the need for European partners to work together as Cameron was unable to work closely with France or any other European partner to take military action on the crisis and even failed to convince Parliament that he could lead a British response to the conflict. Although Obama faced the danger of a similar failure to convince Congress to take military steps, since the Libyan crisis there seems to be little strategic harmony between the major military powers of Europe and the US. According to previous examples of the Atlantic Bridge, it has been a British role to bring together both sides of the Atlantic in response to major international events. Yet, unity has become increasingly more difficult to achieve at a time when Cameron’s relations with Europe have become strained.
Since 2010, Cameron has been confronted with mounting pressure from his backbenches on Europe and he faces further difficulties in the coming months. The 2014 EU parliamentary elections gives UKIP the opportunity to turn its increasing popularity into electoral success which would provide further ammunition for Conservative backbenchers and grass-root activists to use against Cameron on his European policy. There will also be the decision on who to appoint as the next EU Commissioner with eurosceptic backbenchers pressuring Cameron to appoint someone to the post who will be tough on Europe. Although Cameron has tried to take a harder approach to Europe, as seen with his comments on welfare for EU migrants and Romanian and Bulgarian immigration concerns, his actions have further isolated his position in Europe. He has attempted to build a strong working relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Cameron’s other relationships with European powers have been less positive. The continuingly poor relationship with French President Hollande as well as criticisms of Cameron arising from Bulgarian and Polish ministers could work against him as he seeks to bring back powers from Brussels. Given the strength of the French position in Europe as well as the increasing discontent of the rising stars of Eastern Europe such as Poland, support for giving Cameron a favourable deal seems increasingly unlikely and could result in a British exit from the EU.
With America now overtly focused on East Asia, the US’ other interests have been pushed to the side and the shared history of the Special Relationship alone will not be enough to guarantee Britain a close position to the US. Therefore, Britain needs to be as strong a voice in Europe as possible to maintain its unusually close partnership with the US. A potential exit could undermine what is still Britain’s most crucial foreign partnership. The failure of the British government to put forward a supportive response for the US on Syria as opposed to the strong French support for taking military action demonstrates that there are other countries on the same page as the US who could (if I can mix my metaphors) play a bridging role between America and Europe. A Britain outside of the EU would likely result in closer ties being formed between Washington and other leading European nations, further marginalising UK-US relations. Without Britain’s membership to the EU, the notion of an Atlantic Bridge would be lost, leaving British foreign policy directionless.
Philip Gannon is a doctoral student at Durham University, School of Government and International Affairs. His recent publications include ‘The bridge that Blair built: David Cameron and the transatlantic relationship’, in the journal British Politics.
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