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Leading article The Week

Global Britain

17 December 2011

11:00 PM

17 December 2011

11:00 PM

David Cameron did not expect to spend Christmas being toasted as a conquering hero. The Prime Minister fully intended to sign a new EU Treaty that night in Brussels, subject to a modest condition that the City of London would be exempt from even further regulation. But the French refused him so much as a fig leaf, and Nicolas Sarkozy went off to cast Britain as the villain of the summit. Had talks started at 7 a.m., rather than 7 p.m., they might have ended more amiably. But much of history is decided by frayed tempers in negotiating rooms.

It could scarcely have ended better for the Prime Minister. He is aligned on this definitive issue not just with his own party but with the British public, who back his decision by a margin of four-to-one. This despite the Europhiles’ assertion that Britain is now somehow ‘isolated’ from the rest of Europe, and Nick Clegg’s striking claim that Britain would be a ‘pygmy’ on the world stage were it not under the union of states led by Herman Van Rompuy. To consider either complaint, we have to ask: precisely how isolated are we? And what would this country have going for it, if not for its membership of the European Union?

It is odd that Britain, a rain-lashed island on the edge of Europe, should occupy such a huge role in world affairs — or have ever built an empire that encompassed two fifths of humanity. The hard power of empire has now given way to the soft power of trade, but we have remained an outward-looking nation with global horizons. Indeed, rather than being ‘isolated’, Britain has scarcely ever been more integrated with the rest of Europe and the world. We have successfully absorbed 7.1 million immigrant workers, 12 per cent of our total workforce, without any of the far-right backlash seen on the continent.

The City of London is hated by Sarkozy because it absorbs the world’s talent, much of it French. The best traders in Paris board the Eurostar on a Monday morning and head to London where they stay for the week. ‘Go into the London Stock Exchange — a more respectable place than many a court — and you will see representatives from all nations gathered together for the utility of men,’ wrote Voltaire in his Letters from England. ‘Here Jew, Muslim and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.’ Even today, the City is a Babel, the least ‘isolated’ place in the world. Take Barclays Capital: of its 15-strong executive committee, around ten are foreign-born: from the US, France, Italy, Canada and Australia.

Britain’s national sport is also the very opposite of insular. When the Premier League was set up in 1992, nine out of ten players who appeared in fixtures were British. Today, most are foreign-born. The English Premier League is a weekly World Cup, matches played with the greatest players on the planet, watched live across five continents. Portsmouth can play Arsenal without a single Englishman on the starting line-up, and the English crowd care only about the quality of the football. The narrow-minded ‘little Englander’, so vivid in the imagination of some politicians, is very hard to find in real life.

What is easier to see is the insularity of the European Union. The whole project is about trying to pretend globalisation isn’t happening. Erecting trade barriers, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, subsidising uncompetitive companies — it’s all about trying to freeze the clock at Christmas 1992. Sarkozy’s obsession about regulating the City is driven by his hope that France might — to use his own words — ‘get our young people back’. In truth, his young people are thoroughly capable of working in Singapore or Dubai. Europe emerged as a world power because it once consisted of hundreds of competing polities. Trying to kill competition between states now, with a ‘fiscal union’, will only accelerate its relative decline.

This is not the British way, and never has been. We have always been comfortable not just with the rest of the world, but with competition. This can be traced to the British Enlightenment. Adam Smith was making the case for free trade and ­gradual reform while his French counterparts were talking about transforming society using the power of the state. The EU still believes today that the debt crisis can be wished away by the willpower of a political elite. As the medicine fails, there will be plenty more crisis summits next year — with the EU growingmore desperate, assertive and inward-looking. Britain will need to stand further back.

David Cameron didn’t ask for this crunch point, but it has arrived. If the EU is about to transform ‘radically’, as Sarkozy says, then so must Britain’s relationship with it. So far, there has not been enough difference between the Cameron administration and the failed Labour government it replaced — on Europe and much more. But turning points in our history seldom coincide with general elections. The Prime Minister now finds himself with an opportunity to set the terms of debate. Just as Britain’s sudden exit from the ERM marked the beginning of our last recovery, so this fracas may herald another — and the start of a new relationship with the wider world.

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