Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

On foreign policy speeches, the elephant in the room, and a slight shift in focus

For a largely foreign policy-focussed blog, Gordon Brown’s offered little of any interest since becoming Prime Minister. He simply doesn’t seem to have much interest in the rest of the world, happily ignoring both the EU and the US for weeks on end, and seemingly making little effort to make friends on the international stage.

Sod his speech the other day. It struck me as too full of platitudes to be of any use (“the first duty of government [is] the protection of the British national interest”, “global challenges need global solutions” etc.), with all kinds of oddness piled on top:

“I want to play my part in helping the European Union move away from its past preoccupation with inward looking institutional reform and I will work with others to propose a comprehensive agenda for a Global Europe – a Europe that is outward looking, open, internationalist, able to effectively respond both through internal reform and external action to the economic, security and environmental imperatives of globalisation.”

Does Brown not get that further institutional reform of the EU – including reforms beyond the vague compromises of the reform treaty – is vital for it to continue to function, or is he simply hoping to avoid any more of it, and thus further irritating spats about referenda?

Either way, it matters not a jot – because Gordon Brown is far too weak to have any significant impact on European (let alone global) relations at the moment. It looks like he’s already buggered his chances of getting in with Bush, and with the race to succeed old George still too close to call, he’s got no idea which candidates to start sucking up to for the post-November 2008 period, by which time Brown will, in any case, be gearing up for an election of his own.

Having failed to call an election this autumn, Brown finds himself with two years to make an impact on the international scene at the very worst time, with the US presidency in transition – and, more importantly, an insanely secure and charismatic internationalist French president charging around making friends with everyone. Barely at the start of his first term as president, still hugely popular, with a big parliamentary majority to back him up – he’s secure, will be around for a long time, and seems to have a knack for becoming best buddies with whichever world leader he happens to be with at the time.

With Angela Merkel’s coalition on the verge of collapse in Germany, Prodi again embroiled in the type of controversy that can always end the inevitably short-lived governments of Italy, and Zapatero looking weak in Spain after this year’s tight local elections (and a general election due next year), and Brown rocking backwards and forwards singing to himself with his eyes closed and fingers in his ears whenever anyone mentions the EU, it is again to France – Sarkozy – that Europe must look for leadership.

So, ignore Gordon Brown’s speech, and instead look to Sarkozy’s speech at the European Parliament the other day and speech to the US Congress a week or so ago if you want to get an idea of where foreign policy is really going to be focussed.

Brown can ramble on about Iran as much as he likes, but it’s what happens in Europe, not the middle east, that will have the most impact on Britain in the next few years – if he’s serious about protecting the British national interest (whatever that may be…), he’d do well to get in with Sarkozy sharpish to head off any problematic reforms and foreign policy objectives before France manages to get them so secure on the agenda that they’re impossible to remove. Making friends with Sarkozy is also essential to start shaping the inevitable additional changes within the EU before they really start to form, in the wake of the reform treaty’s bad compromises. All Brown’s done so far is bury his head in the sand and hope all the various EU-related problems somehow go away.

But, of course, what everyone’s really ignoring – and Sarkozy is, at least publicly, as guilty of this as anyone – is Russia. Sod the middle east, sod institutional reform, sod further expansion and sod terrorism – Russia is Europe’s single biggest problem. Be it cyber-warfare against Estonia, cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine, killing people on the streets of London, or threatening countries willing to do a deal with the US on missile defence, Russia is throwing its weight around big style – and something needs to be done to calm the bear.

Sarkozy is in a very good position to do this – capitalising on his nascent friendship with Putin (who is bound to maintain influence even after the presidential elections in the spring) as well as the long friendship between France and Russia. Brown’s government, meanwhile, has merely escalated the post-Litvinenko tensions by chucking out diplomats and rattling sabres – which helps precisely no one, and has got us precisely nowhere.

If one thing is a given, it’s that keeping Russia on board is vital not just for Europe’s energy future but also for the stability of the countries on the European fringe (both new EU member states and those that may become such in a few years). With energy supplies likely to become ever more of a central issue over the next few years as the middle east remains unstable, Russia’s dominance of the Asian oil and gas fields, and ability to control pretty much all supply lines in to Europe from the east (see map – PDF), means that Moscow/Putin has more ability to influence Europe than pretty much anyone else. Until Turkey and Georgia are sufficiently stabilised and, ideally, brought in to the EU (allowing an alternate route, via the Caspian Sea, for the oil and gas of Central Asia without having to pass through Russia or the middle east at all), maintaining friendly relations with Russia is vital.

So, expect more on Sarkozy here over the next few months – as well as rather more on Russia-EU relations in the run-up to the Presidential elections in March, and the Duma elections on 2nd December. Sarkozy is likely to dominate the EU for at least another four years, and Russia’s impact is only going to increase as oil and gas supplies dwindle – it would be foolish for anyone trying to take the broad view of EU affairs to ignore this any longer.