Britain's insistence on having its say on the eurozone crisis has deepened its isolation in the European Union.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the current turmoil in Europe, sparked by the eurozone debt crisis, as the continent's “hardest hour since the Second World War” and warned that “if the euro fails, Europe fails.” Others have used more dramatic language to capture the mood, calling it an “existential moment” and predicting the death of a federal Europe if the crisis is not resolved soon.
By all accounts, it is clearly time for all good Europeans to come together. Yet, seldom in recent years has Europe been so divided. The air is thick with conspiracy theories and there is talk about “plots” and “secret alliances.” Distasteful jokes about a “German Europe” are swirling around along with sweeping generalisations about Greek and Italian cultures and swipes at French and British attitudes.
But the big story, really, is about the British response to the eurozone crisis. A full-blown war of words has erupted between Britain and its European Union partners, who resent what they regard as its patronising attitude. Britain, which is not a member of the eurozone and often gloats over its decision not to adopt the single currency, has been accused of “meddling” in its affairs and “sniping” from the sidelines rather than helping it find a solution.
“There is a belief in Germany and France that Britain has been playing an unhelpful — even malign role,” The Financial Times reported on the eve of Prime Minister David Cameron's recent visit to Berlin, which was greeted with mocking headlines in the German media.
“Das Kranke” (The Sick Empire) ran a headline on Der Spiegel magazine's website while Bild asked: “What's England still doing in the EU?”
Because of its deep-seated euroscepticism, bordering on visceral loathing among the ruling Conservatives, Britain has never been popular with its European neighbours. But, in recent weeks, its isolation has deepened as a result of what is widely perceived across the Channel as its negative response to the crisis. Attempts by Mr. Cameron and his fellow Conservative Chancellor George Osborne to blame the developments in Europe for Britain's own worsening economic difficulties and their hectoring tone have caused fury not only in European capitals but also invited sneers at home.
While it is widely acknowledged that the chaos in the eurozone will inevitably have an effect on other European countries even if they are not part of the single currency, the Tories' bid to hold it entirely responsible for Britain's economic meltdown is seen as self-serving opportunism. The New Statesman called the Tories's claim “opportunistic,” pointing out that Britain's economic woes “pre-dated the crisis in eurozone.”
Ridiculing Mr. Osborne's claim that “growth in Britain, jobs in Britain have been hit by what's going on in the eurozone,” the magazine said the fact was that the collapse of economic growth and the surge in unemployment were the “inevitable result” of his own “excessive austerity measures.” Equally damaging had been the Chancellor's claim that Britain was on the “brink of bankruptcy” — a statement that, it argued, had a “chilling effect on consumer confidence” in Britain.
Messrs Cameron and Osborne have also angered their EU partners by choosing this hour of crisis, when what Europe needs is solidarity, to step up their campaign to claw back powers from Brussels in a bid to appease the Conservative grassroots.
There is further irritation over Britain's insistence on having a say on the future of the eurozone without being willing to contribute to the rescue package needed to secure it. Critics say this is symptomatic of Britain's “have-it-all-for-nothing” approach.
The respected French newspaper Le Monde asked Britain to “put up or shut up.”
“In the current climate, the eternal British ambiguity undermines Europe more every day,” it commented editorially while President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was “sick” of the British attitude.
“We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do,” he told Mr. Cameron during a tense exchange at a meeting of EU leaders after Britain had accused Germany and France of “dithering.”
British refusal to back a Franco-German proposal for a Europe-wide financial tax on grounds that it would hurt British business has provoked an angry reaction.
In Germany, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union and a close ally of Ms Merkel, Volker Kauder, was apoplectic saying that Britain would not be allowed to “get away” with its self-serving approach.
“The British are not members of the currency union but they are members of Europe and they have a responsibility for the success of Europe….The British don't want this and I understand, when 30 per cent of your gross domestic product comes from the financial market business in the City of London [but] only going after their own benefit and refusing to contribute is not the message we're letting the British get away with,” he said.
Britain says it would accept it only if it is adopted by the United States and other leading economies; otherwise, it fears, such a tax would drive businesses away from Britain. Mr. Osborne described it as “a bullet aimed at the heart of London” which thrives on financial services, arguing that “Europe certainly shouldn't be creating a new burden.”
Mr. Cameron's joke that it would be like levying “a tax on French cheese” was met with bemusement in Paris. Mr. Osborne fuelled French fury when he appeared to suggest that France, too, was heading for a Greece-like debt crisis with “markets asking questions” about its finances.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cameron is seen to be floundering on the issue of defining Britain's relationship with Europe, and even British commentators are asking: what is it that Britain wants? What's Mr. Cameron's vision for Europe?
“At the moment, purest waffle,” according to the noted Oxford academic and Europe expert, Timothy Garton Ash.
Commenting on Mr. Cameron's dismissive remarks about “grand plans and utopian visions” and his support for a Europe “with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc,” Mr Ash wrote in The Guardian: “He denounces ‘utopian visions', but says nothing at all about how his own utopian vision of a ‘networked Europe' would work in practice. One of his most eloquent supporters, Daniel Finkelstein [a former Tory official], writes in the Times that this Europe would be like Microsoft rather than the closed systems of Apple. What on earth does that mean? How exactly would ‘networked Europe' preserve the benefits Britain does want to keep, especially those of the single market? How would ‘networked Europe' relate to a more integrated eurozone? Who would speak for ‘networked Europe' when it came to negotiations with China?”
Even the Tory Right is not impressed with Mr. Cameron's performance and there is a sense that, in his anxiety not to upset his pro-Europe Liberal Democrat coalition partners, he is sending out confused messages.
“He ought to recognise that Europe's difficulty is Britain's opportunity. He should not be investing money or political capital in the survival of the eurozone. Since everything is changing so fast, he should say so… At present, Mr. Cameron seems too anxious about the adverse reaction of Liberal Democrats at a time when even Nick Clegg [Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister] is privately exasperated with the way the EU is going. He has within his own party … a fund of ideas. If he doesn't tap it, he will create an irreconcilable enemy within, and go the way of John Major [erstwhile Tory Prime Minister whose government was consumed by differences over Europe],” warned Charles Moore, former Telegraph Editor and a dyed-in-the-wool eurosceptic, in The Spectator.
Meanwhile, as the eurozone contagion spreads from Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Spain, Italy and beyond, there is growing pressure on Germany to act by drawing on the resources of the European Central Bank. This would mean empowering the bank to act as a lender of last resort, thus enabling it to buy the bonds of “sick” eurozone countries — a move that is fiercely opposed by German politicians who fear that it could fuel inflation. However, critics warn that a point is reaching where unless Germany relents, the eurozone could be headed for a crash, endangering the entire European project.
Christmas is approaching and if Europeans were asked to name three wishes, it is not hard to anticipate which two would be on everyone's wish-list: a crystal ball to foresee the future of Europe in the New Year; and a magic wand that would make Britain abandon its obsessive europhobia.
The chances are that a crystal ball might be easier to lay their hands on but hoping to convert Britain to a more pro-European position is a wish too far.