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July 23, 2019

When Europe lacks a strategy

We always regarded the main benefit of European integration as being the protection of Europe’s strategic autonomy, the defence of European values, and its independence from other superpowers. Without this killer-app, the case for the EU is much weaker. This is so because many policy areas, like monetary union and immigration policy, have had a highly asymmetric effect on the member states. As we have been arguing during the eurozone crisis, there now exists a prima facie case for some member states, and groups within member states, to argue for an exit from the eurozone. That was unthinkable before the crisis. Without a common foreign and security policy, the case for European integration will become progressively harder to make. 

In this context, we spotted an interesting, albeit depressing, piece of research by the European council of foreign relations, which has done a survey of attitudes in EU member states about joint security interests. 

The overall result is that some countries don’t want any strategic autonomy for the EU. These are the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland. It is no accident that all but one of these are outside the eurozone - and the Netherlands is increasingly behaving like it is. Since foreign and security policy formally remains subject to the national veto, the results of this study clearly suggest that the defence of the EU’s strategic interests cannot be effectively carried out at EU level, but will ultimately require a structure like the monetary union - run in part within the EU and in part by an inter-governmental coalition that sets up its own institutions.

As one of the authors of the study noted, what she found most surprising was the total lack of any strategic position vis-a-vis China in any of the 28 member states. In 15 countries, China plays no role in their thinking about European strategic autonomy. In the remaining countries, China is of interest mainly for commercial reasons. China’s military ambitions play no role whatsoever.

We see the lack of common strategic thinking as pervading many activities of the EU. Politico has a story on the Juncker Commission’s policy on high tech. When it took office in 2014, it promised to treat technology as an opportunity. Instead it ended up tackling high tech as a problem of competitiveness and tax avoidance. In this sector, too, the EU has turned inward - away from seeing opportunities and towards fighting threats. We disagree with Politico’s optimistic conclusion on the EU’s future approach to artificial intelligence. We expect EU policy there to follow the usual patterns: to focus on its limits, not on its opportunities.

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July 23, 2019

LibDems are back, but British liberalism is not

The Tories will announce the results of their leadership contest today. No prizes for guessing the winner. Yesterday the LibDems announced that they, too, have elected a new leader: Jo Swinson, the party’s first female leader.

The LibDems have benefitted from the Tory Party’s anti-European course and from Labour's fence-sitting. After poor election results in 2015 and 2017, they came second to the Brexit Party in the European elections. The election of a new young leader raises hopes of a revival, a theme Timothy Garton Ash picked up in his Guardian column this morning.

It would be unusual for a Guardian columnist - and for Garton Ash in particular - not to end with a postscript in favour of a second referendum, the ceterum censeo of UK liberal politics. This is also a position supported by Swinson. And it makes electoral sense, given the sore feelings of the 48%.

But, while Brexit dominates UK politics right now, the long-term success or failure of the LibDems will not be primarily about Brexit. It will be about whether liberalism has better answers to the UK's problems than the two major parties. On this point, we are less optimistic than Garton Ash, who tends to regard the crisis of liberalism as the result not of failed policies but of nationalist conspiracies. He invokes the liberal values of Isaiah Berlin and George Orwell, but does not address the overriding problem of liberal democracy in the early 21st century: that the pursuit of these ideas created inequality and a strong electoral push-back. 

We see the success or failure of the LibDems not in terms of shifting views about liberal values, but as the result of sequential accidents in a zero-sum electoral system. If the Brexit vote were to split between the Tories and the Brexit Party, and if Labour continues to prevaricate on the second referendum, the LibDems are in a with a big chance to win many seats and to become a junior coalition partner, possibly in a Corbyn administration. But there are equally plausible scenarios in which that does not happen: we expect Corbyn to endorse a second referendum ahead of the next elections. And we cannot see Johnson being foolish enough to go into an election without either having delivered Brexit, or without an explicit no-deal mandate if elections take place before October 31. We don’t see a revival of British liberalism, but do not rule out a revival of the LibDems.

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