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June 07, 2005

The Case for a European Superpower under British Leadership: why Britain now has the opportunity to become the Prussia of European unification with Blair as its Bismarck

Posted by Brendan Simms

The defeat of the European Constitution in the French and Dutch referendums offers the UK a great opportunity to seize the leadership of Europe and create a British Europe, argues Dr Brendan Simms - fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Such a Europe, argues Dr Simms, should not be a meddling European "superstate" but a European superpower under British leadership with the military muscle to pursue an interventionist foreign policy.

We have been here before. The rejection of the European Defence Community by the French parliament in 1954 was perhaps the first time that France derailed the process of European integration, but as the referendum on the European Constitution shows, it was certainly not the last. The response then was to push ahead with German rearmament within NATO, and marginalize France. Today, especially after the resounding Dutch "no" to the European Constitution, the temptation in London now may be to ease off and to patch up some sort of deal with Paris and Berlin which salvages French pride and maintains the status quo. It should be resisted. The present crisis in Europe presents an opportunity for Britain and Mr Blair which may never recur.

The past few weeks have seen the extraordinary "double hara-kiri" of the two most formidable obstacles to British leadership in Europe. First, Chancellor Schroeder of Germany announced new elections in autumn, which look set to bring the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel to power, who is much closer to Blair than to Chirac. Then the French "no" effectively brought to an end four decades of intimate Franco-German collaboration in Europe. For the first time in the history of European integration, London is in a position to seize the initiative, and articulate a new vision.

It may come as a surprise to many Britons that British prestige and that of the Prime Minister runs high in Europe. The British economy is widely recognised as the dynamic model of the future. Britain is by a comfortable margin the greatest European military power and is recognised as such by the ultimate arbiter, the United States. Mr Blair is distrusted by many Europeans, especially in France and Britain, as one of the architects of the Iraq war, but his determination to rid the world of Saddam Hussein is respected. Moreover, Mr Blair was by far and away the most robust and realistic of the leaders who faced down Milosevic over Kosovo. Everybody has heard of him. Mr Blair has the aura and ambivalence of power. If popular elections for a European President were held across the Union tomorrow, he would certainly come out well ahead of any alternative candidate. Moreover, Mr Blair is suddenly beginning to look attractive to a European, and especially a German elite bereft by the French "no"; they are desperate for a saviour.

The vision that Mr Blair must articulate is one in which Britain immerses itself in Europe and in so doing transforms the Union decisively. Both parties in this synthesis will have to make an imaginative leap. What we need is not so much a European Britain, though that will happen, but a British Europe. Europe must become in some senses an extension of Britain and a force multiplier for British grand strategy, which must in turn evolve in symbiosis with Europe. Britain, in short, must become the Prussia of European unification and Mr Blair must become its Bismarck.

Some fear that this would alienate us from the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. They have always wanted one number to ring in Europe; better still if there were to be a reasonable English-speaking voice at the other end of the line. It is true that the economic cohesion of the Union is feared by US negotiators, but that stands to remain, constitution or no constitution. What Washington would be loth to lose was any prospect of European burden-sharing in the global tasks ahead. After all, if there had been a politically-integrated Europe in 2003, it is arguable that the "coalition of the willing" of Britain, Spain, Italy, and Denmark, could have outvoted the Franco-German axis. Since the accession of "New Europe", the defection of Spain notwithstanding, the constituency for British leadership, and cooperation with the United States has increased exponentially. The states of central and eastern Europe have not forgotten that Jacques Chirac responded to their support for the removal of Saddam Hussein with the warning that they "had missed a great opportunity to remain silent".

Britain must now move to seize the initiative from France. Probably, Paris will make it easy. The appointment of Dominique de Villepin, who is a red rag to London and Washington, as Prime Minister, over the far more acceptable Nicolas Sarkozy is a sign that the French elite is in a truculent mood. They will blame the defeat on Britain's "Anglo-Saxon" economic agenda within Europe and attempt a retreat into a "core" Europe based on the original Franco-German partnership. Berlin, or at least the new Christian Democratic government, will not buy it. London for its part is right not to rush to kill off the treaty, but delay things in order to wait for the time the constitution will presumably have been laid to rest with a thousand cuts. The odium for the rejection of the treaty will then rest with the French and Dutch electorates, and the elites which failed to persuade them. We should respect their democratic will and bid them goodbye; France and Holland will be not so much extruded from the Union as left behind. As "Old Europe" subsides more and more into economic recession and military obsolescence, they will discover their mistake soon enough and may be readmitted on our terms.

This will be the moment for Britain to present a new prospectus for deeper Union, based on the acceptable parts of the existing draft treaty, coupled to a dynamic new security paradigm. The way forward must be through greater European military integration under British leadership, in close cooperation with Germany and other like-minded states. This can take place within Nato, in the first instance, with the ultimate object of creating a single European army alongside the United States and Canada. The commanding officer would by convention, or designation, always be a British general, with a German deputy. The European general staff would be provided by the British in cooperation with the existing NATO command structure; a European Military Academy should be created near Sandhurst. Britain would energise and direct the European military effort in the "War on Terror" and the democratic transformation of the Middle East. In return, Britain would commit herself more deeply to Europe and press ahead with a referendum on the rump constitution, or some similar instrument. There should be a European President elected by popular vote across the Union in order to begin to address the problem of the "Democratic Deficit". When a European 9/11 or its equivalent takes place, Britain will be ready and the resulting momentum will generate the emotional, political and military fusion which the process of European integration has lacked hitherto.

Britons should be open to this process, for it mirrors very much the stages by which their multi-national and composite state came about. After all, in 1707, the Scotch elite voted their Parliament out of existence, and embraced Westminster, not because they were suffering from false consciousness, but because they saw in the emerging British state a force for liberty, commerce and empire, and security against external aggression.

But perhaps the better analogy for Britain's potential role today would be that of nineteenth-century Prussia. [What follows is partly based on remarks in the author's "Blood, iron and creative havoc", Times Higher, 25th July 2003, p. 22]. For the project of European Unity is now roughly at the same stage as that of German Unification by 1860. Ever since the Customs Union – or Zollverein – of 1834, economic integration had proceeded apace, but political unification continued to founder on the determination of the smaller German states not to surrender their hard-won sovereignty. It was also hamstrung by the Austrian pretension to hegemony in Germany and its bitter opposition to Prussian leadership. What finally persuaded the fiercely independent states of Baden, Wuerttemberg and Bavaria to accept political unity was the manifest failure of the German Confederation, and loose, amiable and ineffectual political commonwealth, to provide security against French aggression. This explains the paradox that South German electorates voted in large numbers against pro-unification parties in the late 1860s and yet embraced a united German under Bismarck's leadership after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

So it may be with the European Union. Here, too, the project of economic integration via the single market and single currency is well advanced. Here, too, political and military integration has repeatedly stalled despite numerous opportunities. The challenge of Bosnia in the early 1990s was comprehensively fluffed. The vaunted European defence identity was exposed as the very model of a modern chocolate soldier: swathed in a gaudy multi-lateralist wrapper, saccharine-sweet on the principles of consensus, but flaky when put to the test. Ten years on, there is nothing to suggest that Europe would have coped militarily had the situation in Ukraine earlier this year deteriorated into civil war; and what Europe could currently do if Belarus explodes, as it surely must soon, is anybody's guess. What we need to deal with these and other challenges is not a meddling European "superstate", but a European superpower under British leadership.

At some point there will be a War of European Unification, probably within the framework of the "War on Terror". For the final political integration of Europe will not be brought about by economic convergence, consensual resolutions and constitutional conventions, but by blood and iron.

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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Very droll. And very wise to finesse the following

i) the boundaries of the Europe emerging from this "War of European Integration"

ii) what the UK's strategic posture is and ought to be

iii) the fact the Germans have a common language and Europe doesn't.

Good to know that whatever else has changed since the 1980s, Peterhouse hasn't. Well, it wouldn't, would it?

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at June 7, 2005 04:42 PM

Dr. Simms appears to have ignored 2 very inconvenient facts:

1. While it is true that Britain has an enviable economy, that is far from the notion that Europe likes to follow Britain's lead. The No campaign in France was led by people who despise the British economic model.

2. Aside from enlargement and the rebate, Britain had virtually no impact on the development of the EU.

Even if Sarkozy succeeds Chirac in France and Merkel succeeds Schroeder in Germany, France and Germany are not the kind of countries that want to follow another country's lead.

Posted by: htjyang at June 8, 2005 12:50 AM

This is a very interesting, unusual and individualistic perspective on the future of Europe post the Dutch and French no votes in their referendums. In the last paragraph, however, it gets rather worrying. What exactly does Dr Simms mean by the War of European Unification? How will Europe political integration come about through "blood and iron"? Where exactly does Dr Simms envisage these wars occurring - who will they be between - what outcome does he envisage? Perhaps Dr Simms would care to explain.

Posted by: David Jacobs at June 8, 2005 03:19 PM

This "War of European Unification" sounds like something out of That Hideous Strength by C.S.Lewis. For those that haven't read it, that would be one of the seventeen planned wars to bring about the Devil's total takeover of the world.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 12, 2005 10:19 PM

Brendan Simms is a very likeable fellow and a generous host, but his piece on 7 June 2005 was all too characteristic of his scholarship: the history was flawed and the argument rested on fanciful assertion. Simms' arguments for taking 1707 and 1866 as a model for European integration rest on a selective reading of both episodes. The Union of 1707 indeed in part rested on a determination not to be shut out from the English and colonial market: the Scottish economy was in a poor state, and this had been emphasized by the crushing failure of the Darien Scheme to establish a Scottish commercial entrepot near Panama, while, conversely, the strengthening pull of the London market had a growing effect on the Scottish economy. Yet, there were other reasons as well which Simms fails to discuss.

Political problems and personal opportunism were the most important. The civil war of 1689-91 had underlined the divisions in Scottish society and made rule from London seem more attractive than government by Scottish opponents. In practice, the powerful leadership of the Presbyterian Church, fearful of exiled Stuarts and Scottish Episcopalians, accepted the Union as a political necessity. The passage of Union through the Scottish Parliament ultimately depended on successful political management, corruption and self-interest.

Simms sees this as a model, but it was an incorporating, not a confederal, union. In 1708, the Scottish Privy Council, the executive agency for Scotland, was abolished without consultation. The governmental implications for England were far less important, because it was the more populous and wealthier of the two states and dominated the new British political system. The political consequences, however, were distinctly unhappy: a large number of Scottish Protestants rejected the new order to the extent that they were willing to rebel in 1715.

The role of force in the Union was replicated in Germany. Simms appears to wish to ignore the extent to which this rested on war between the German states. Bavarians, Hanoverians and others proved willing to fight against Prussian invasion in 1866. It was Prussian military success that explained unification. Simms appears anyway to assume that German Unification was a clear bonus for the Germans, without at least considering the argument that it helped to propel them in to two disastrous wars. In this context, "the determination of the smaller German states not to surrender their hard-won sovereignty" was prescient, and a more useful analogy for modern Europe than the lesson Simms draws.

Dodging history may not be a concern to readers. After all, who today assessing Teddy Roosevelt, Franjo Tudjman or Dominique de Villepin wonders about their historical writing, which is a pity as they should. A failure to deal fairly with the past is of concern when considering prospectuses for the future. Simms has no doubts. As so often with his arguments, there is clarity and a lack of any willingness to consider alternatives: "The vision that Mr. Blair must articulate… Britain must become the Prussia of European unification … The way forward must be …" Such language betokens an unwillingness to engage with complexities reminiscent of other academics who prefer journalism to scholarship, for example Niall Ferguson in Colossus. The mechanics are far more complex than he suggests. Why assume that other powers will accept a British-provided European general staff? Why assume that the military effort is the best way to take forward the "War on Terror"? Why assume that a democratic transformation of the Middle East will necessarily be in Western interests? Different views can be taken on all of these questions, but to suspend debate because the answer is clear betrays the illiberalism at the heart of Simms' approach.

There are also other troubling points. Simms suggests that "when a European 9/11 or its equivalent takes place, Britain will be ready and the resulting momentum will generate the emotional, political and military fusion which the process of European integration has lacked hitherto". The closest we have come is the Madrid bombings, and these scarcely support Simms' analysis. Indeed, the withdrawal of Spain from the "coalition of the willing" underlines the extent to which the notion of a "European superpower under British leadership" is only possible if democratic consent and sovereign power are lost. That might make it easier to envisage intervention in Belarus or the Middle East, but the reality is likely to be civil disobedience and separatism.

Simms offers the phrase "flaky when put to the test", but that is an apt description of his argument. This is a pity as someone of his ability and position has much to contribute to the debate on such vexed questions as the EU response to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Debate, however, requires more than assertion.

Jeremy Black
Professor of History
University of Exeter

Posted by: Jeremy Black at August 2, 2006 06:21 PM

Dear Director

Ref.: Comparisons between Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Levant (West Asia)

We have recently launched a website in which we present our research program. Any comments on the contents of our Proposal and the possibility that your Center links our site will be deeply appreciated. Once you have entered into our Website do not forget to return to my mail and acknowledge receipt.

This Program or Proposal raises the question of whether the first absolutist empires that fell apart (the Spanish, the Ottoman, the Habsburg, the Tzarist, the Qing) could be compared among them and to the first modern European empires (the British, the French, the Dutch, the Belgian), and the last modern empires (Soviet Union, China). We also argue that the formation of the nation-states and their crises, which are currently taking place in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Levant (West Asia), could be mutually compared.

It seems to us that these crises are a current global phenomenon that cannot be studied in isolation. Apparently, they were originated in the particular way in which those empires collapsed.

We have launched this new website
to encourage studies and promote connections among them. Furthermore, we want to organize an International Conference which will be held at a time and place to be determined..

Best wishes,

Eduardo R. Saguier
Senior Researcher
Museo Roca-Buenos Aires

Posted by: Eduardo R. Saguier at December 10, 2008 04:24 PM
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