The UK elections are quickly approaching and while for months the odds on favorite to win was conservative David Cameron, the polls are now tightening. However, should Cameron hold on and win, Britain’s place in Europe may be in the balance – and as a result so will the “special relationship” between the UK and the United States.
Cameron has marketed himself as a new type of Tory. He says he is socially progressive, concerned about the environment, and is a man of the people – think “compassionate conservative.” But when it comes to the European Union, Cameron has increasingly gone tea-party by aligning himself with the jingoistic views of Europe held by the UK’s far right. Last Fall, Cameron made the decision to pull the UK conservatives out of the mainstream conservative block in the European Parliament, choosing to align them with a rag-tag bunch of fringe right wing parties, some with deeply anti-semetic, anti-gay, and racist views. This move essentially condemns UK conservatives to irrelevancy in the European Parliament and Europe in general. What is troubling is that this was after all the entire point of Cameron’s decision, making it a thinly disguised effort to shore up his right flank politically by demonstrating his commitment to an anti-European agenda. But even if this is just electoral politics, David Gardner of the Financial Times warns:
The decision to withdraw from the EPP, moreover, was low on substance and high on opportunism. Mr Cameron needed to secure his right flank to assure he won the party leadership, so he tossed some red meat to the Tory backwoodsmen. They will be back for more.
A Cameron victory therefore will likely mean irrelevancy in Europe not just for the Tories but for the UK. Cameron’s decision to pull out of the conservative bloc, his efforts to block the Lisbon Treaty, and his calls for the UK to renegotiate its terms of membership in Europe, were all widely rebuked by European leaders. Should Cameron win and follow through on some of his promises it would essentially make the UK a fringe player in the 27-member European club.
The problem for the United States, however, is that Cameron’s anti-European stance would only serve to make Britain less relevant to the United States. The fact is that the UK is just not as relevant to the United States if it is on the sidelines of Europe.
British debates presenting UK relationships with the US and Europe, as competing alternatives offer a false and outdated choice. In case the UK hasn’t noticed, US policy toward Europe has shifted away from the divide and rule (old vs. new Europe) approach of the first Bush term. The US now wants Europe as a whole to do more globally, not less. As IHT’s Roger Cohen explained:
Euroskeptic Tory obsession could undermine British influence in Europe at a time when the Obama administration needs an effective E.U. partner.
This shift is also not isolated to Obama. The second term of the Bush administration placed more emphasis on rebuilding ties with European leaders like French President Nikolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Now, the UK-US relationship is still immensely important to the US – the UK has thousands of troops fighting alongside the US and Prime Minister Gordon Brown played a pivotal role in the global response to the international economic crisis – but there has been a noticeable shift in Washington’s attention toward the continent. Prior to the Iraq war, Tony Blair attempted to label Britain as a “pivotal power.” What he meant was that Britain played a crucial global role in its ability to act as interlocutor between the US and Europe. Yet the damage caused to UK-European relations in the wake of the Iraq war reduced the UK’s ability to play this role, which has also led to a subtle decline in the relative importance of the “special relationship” to Washington.
The UK press may clamor about the supposedly warm personal interaction between Obama and Cameron, but while personal rapport matters on some level, it certainly doesn’t compensate for growing international irrelevance. Without its place in Europe, Britain will still be an important and close ally for the U.S. But with its military forces increasingly depleted and looming cuts in defense spending due to stark budget deficits, a Euro-skeptic Britain certainly brings an underwhelming stack of chips to the special relationship.