Cameron’s Europe speech: A chance for the EU to boldly embrace the US

IT’S hard to imagine expectations for David Cameron’s long-overdue Europe speech getting any lower. The smart money is already on him getting caught in the crossfire between supporters and opponents of Britain’s EU membership. But it needn’t be like that.

A few months before the 2010 general election, the Conservatives published a policy paper called A Resilient Nation. It summarised a unified approach to security and, although labelled “liberal Conservative foreign policy”, there was little partisan about it. It was pragmatic, and it reflected the fact that the global challenges ahead of us demand greater pragmatism not less.

As Cameron prepares for his speech, he should recall this need for pragmatism, particularly on the strategic question of Europe’s future. This is a time for leadership, and his words on Friday must appeal well beyond his backbenches. Outflanking the ambushes set for him, Cameron could craft an alternative, more realistic vision – a new strategic “pivot” for Europe towards the US. In other words, he should propose that the EU refocuses its attentions across the Atlantic, so they can both better address the global challenges facing open societies.

The prospects for fresh realism have been enhanced by moves at the start of Barack Obama’s second term. In particular, the revival of EU-US free trade negotiations could herald a rejuvenation of transatlantic relations. Obama has added this European dimension to an existing Asia-Pacific pivot so that both strategic moves can reinforce one another. In the US, the “Asia-Pacific pivot” has been a fashionable phrase for some years. China’s behaviour, and concerns among its neighbours, have encouraged the US to speedily direct its military and strategic attention to the region.

But it is in a similar strategic move by Australia towards the Asia-Pacific that there are better lessons for Cameron in any call for Europe to refocus on the US. In Australia’s policy, the military has a part to play. But its Asia-Pacific pivot is made realistic by hard economic power, underpinned by research, education and innovation.

Europe’s own Asia-Pacific policy is thin and fragmentary. The Eurozone crises have consumed Brussels in introspection. Berlin has not ignored relations with Moscow and Beijing. But hedging against Eurozone break-up has not offered them much comfort.

Now everyone in Europe is hungry for growth, and tired of lurching from crisis to crisis. Indeed, confidence throughout the world economy would be improved by European economies resuming growth. A transatlantic free-trade agreement may offer a real economic boost, as the credibility of quantitative easing wanes.

Nevertheless, bureaucratic vested interests have scuppered previous EU-US free-trade discussions. Igniting a bonfire of red tape on both sides of the Atlantic would be liberating and timely. Unless we do so, we may find that potential for growth is stunted by zombie bureaucracies, eating any green shoots of administrative innovation. Angela Merkel is reported to be in favour of trade liberalisation, rather than a “fortress” EU. Germany knows economics is part of hard power. Self-serving bureaucracies on either side of the Atlantic cannot be allowed to sap the evolutionary development of that power. The stakes are too high for us all.

But this pivot must be about more than economics, and should include a combination of both aspects of hard power; economics and security must be twinned. The signs are that other European powers might be attracted to such a proposal by the Prime Minister. France is now showing its willingness to exercise military hard power. Merkel may also be more sympathetic to Cameron’s plight than might first appear; we are not the only EU nation for whom pooling of sovereignty is problematic in certain circumstances. But we need to address these issues in concert.

There is a sting in the tail for Europe. Although economic growth will bolster hard power, the politics and economics of security cannot be ignored. For most of Europe, that means it must honour its 2 per cent of GDP commitment to NATO. We live in an uncertain world, and it would be rash to assume that a more realistic approach to hard power affords further cuts to defence and security. For the UK, 2 per cent cannot be met by a sleight of hand involving the nuclear deterrent or operational costs. We must lead by example, not by hectoring,

Lord Reid is a former Labour defence secretary. He is chair of the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at UCL.