Ever since its inception, the European project has been dominated by a partnership originally inspired by reconciliation but now predominantly borne out of stone cold realism.
The Franco-German motor that has driven the European Union has been largely unshakeable. Today they may disagree over macroeconomic policy but in reality they know their best interest lies in keeping the other sweet.
In their eyes, the loss of their axis would allow for a genuine intergovernmental project, based on respect for state rights. Everything from the Common Agricultural Policy to the euro currency has come about because these partners wanted it or because one gave into the other. What hope is there for those countries, like the United Kingdom, with the economic clout and manpower, but with no shoe in the Franco-German door?
When the UK acceded to the European Economic Community, economic cooperation and prosperity beckoned. Less than two decades later, the United Kingdom was subsumed into a Union, by Brussels and the Major government.
Brussels has become the vehicle for the motor and it would be stupid to deny both France and Germany have as much influence in the Belgian capital as other member states – they have considerably more. Caught between French and Flemish speakers, one can’t help but feel you’re the filling in a Franco-German sandwich.
Even in the parliament, it is a widely accepted fact that the German EPP holds the ‘big boy about town’ crown and the French MEPs consistently succeed in halting any attempts by the other 600-odd MEPs to abolish the seat at Strasbourg. To believe these partners have been successfully subdued with phases of enlargement is to also considerably miscalculate a reality.
If the UK wants to remain part of the European project, what can it do to alleviate the collusion at the heart of the continent? My answer is to ‘Go East, young man’.
Margaret Thatcher never gave it a thought, John Major never had the time to. Tony Blair pondered it and pushed it (briefly) and Gordon Brown forgot it. Now, David Cameron fails to seize it. If the UK wants to be a major player in Europe, no longer on the edges nor batting all over the field, it has to make friends.
This process does not have to involve forming an alliance founded on a similar ideology or common opinion of the European machine. It simply needs to promote relations and ties. The United Kingdom has neglected Eastern Europe – it does not take an interest.
These countries have shed communism and are now energetic to participate in the European political project. They are worthy enough to thrash their ideas out in the Parliament or the Council and should be listened to.
The UK has a role to play – its role doesn’t involve lecturing or looking down upon those countries that have not been blessed with (or spared!) a thousand-year old monarchy and ancient parliament. The UK would do well to remember that our past has not been one glorious climb.
Our role involves treating these countries as our partners, improving our knowledge of these lands and offering the hand of genuine friendship with no strings attached.
Sure, these nations reserve the right not to shake our hand or return our efforts of friendship, but we must at least try to show that we are of the European continent and that we are here to trade, learn and exchange ideas with countries we consider not only our neighbours, but also our friends.
France, for instance, shares a greater affinity with Eastern Europe than we do, but with time and effort we can strive for the same kinship. Let’s not rush for the Atlantic exit just yet. Let’s fight to win hearts and minds.