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There is a myth about the upcoming election. It is that this election is not about defence or security. A myth that, despite the fact we are a nation at war facing new threats in an increasingly complex global environment, this election is only about the economy. Or politics. Or social reform.
This election is most certainly about all of those things. But it is about Britain's place in the world too. And it is not the case that the passing of the Iraq War has closed the divides between the political parties. The differences remain stark, as do the choices now facing the British people.
So what is at stake on polling day? First, this election is an opportunity to turn the page on the default Atlanticism of successive British governments, for which our national interests have been repeatedly sacrificed. Second, this election will have a direct impact on Europe's role on the world stage. Britain is one of the few countries capable of filling the leadership vacuum currently preventing Europe from exerting the influence it should. Any new government can either embrace that opportunity, or continue to gaze longingly across the Atlantic while Europe's political failings become increasingly entrenched.
I would never advocate a churlish rejection of the UK's historic alliance with the US. All international challenges depend on American engagement, from countering international terrorism, to averting runaway climate change, reforming international financial infrastructure, establishing stability and protecting human rights.
Yet, since the Suez Crisis, UK governments have elevated the 'special relationship' above all else, giving it priority even when it is against our national interests to do so. The US recognises that the special relationship has had its day. President Obama has made it clear that while he values Britain, it is primarily as a gateway to forging a strong partnership with Europe. British politicians should now recognise that an over-reliance on the UK/US relationship is neither realistic nor desirable in a multi-polar world where power is fast transferring from West to East, and the growing influence of nations like China, India, Brazil and South Africa stretches the international balance of power in different directions.
In government, Labour has lacked the self-confidence to act against the wishes of the White House. That deference played out most dramatically in Tony Blair's decision to join the invasion of Iraq, but there have been many instances of British interests and values being similarly relegated: the government's silence on Guantánamo Bay and extraordinary rendition; the limp response from senior British politicians to Israel's offensive in Gaza last year, explained in part by a reluctance to contradict US policy in the Middle East; neither Labour nor the Conservatives are prepared to question spending tens of billions of pounds on a like-for-like replacement of Trident - a Cold War-scale system dependent on Pentagon support; and, crucially, we have pursued a hopelessly under-resourced strategy in Afghanistan for years, largely because of the Bush-Blair obsession with Iraq.
We must now repatriate British foreign policy, recognising that we are better served by multiple partnerships. America will always remain one of those partners, one of our closest and most important partners, but any new UK government must learn to stand tall in our European backyard too.
As a liberal, I am a proud internationalist. I spent ten years working in Europe, first administering development aid projects in some of the poorest countries in Asia, then negotiating trade deals with China and Russia on behalf of the EU, before becoming an MEP. So I have had first-hand experience of Europe's collective clout. But I am under no illusion about the weaknesses that dog the European project. As a result of years of internal navel gazing and a lack of clear leadership from nation states, as well as the Presidency and Commission, the EU has been rendered increasingly erratic and uncertain on the global stage.
The evidence is everywhere. There has been failure of European states to speak with one voice to Russia, notably on energy policy. In the Middle East, the EU has failed to exert meaningful pressure on either the Israeli government or Hamas, and the response to Egypt and Israel's continuing blockade of Gaza has been woeful. Almost one and a half million Palestinians are imprisoned on a wretched piece of land the size of the Isle of Wight, where they are deprived decent water, basic medical supplies and the construction materials necessary to rebuild the homes destroyed in Operation Cast Lead last year. The suffering amounts to a humanitarian catastrophe - one that is not in Israel's strategic interests. Yet the EU has refused to employ its economic leverage over Israel to end the blockade. It is an economic giant that has chosen to act like a political pygmy. While it is true that the planned upgrade in EU-Israel relations has been suspended, that decision has not halted new and extended bilateral agreements, for example on aviation, agriculture and fisheries.
The EU has been disappointing in Afghanistan, too. While recent attempts have been made by the international community to co-ordinate military and civilian strategies more coherently, there is still a long way to go. That lack of a properly co-ordinated strategy cannot be attributed to European states alone, but it has been made worse by the EU's failure to get to grips with its responsibilities. The lacklustre commitment to training Afghanistan's national police force is a notorious example. The EU is meant to lead on this objective - a key element of the international community's exit strategy. However, despite a pledge to put 350 police trainers in place by this month, only 273 have been provided so far.
European states simply have not woken up to the need for deeper integration on security and defence. Despite active encouragement from Washington, member states remain locked in twenty-seven individual defence markets. In 2006, aggregate EU defence spending amounted to almost a quarter of global defence expenditure, but due to fragmented national policies, recent spending levels are capable of delivering only a small fraction of US military power. Member states have 2 million men and women in uniform. Yet they are capable of deploying no more than 5 per cent of them outside their own territory.
I believe Britain must now show leadership in pushing for greater co-ordination. With an estimated £36 billion funding gap in the MoD equipment budget, and with our brave forces already stretched to the limit, the next defence review must look at how European member states can work together more effectively, to improve capabilities and reduce costs. It is fanciful to claim that the UK can continue to purchase, by itself, all of the military equipment currently planned. Liberal Democrats have already ruled out like-for-like replacement of the Trident system and Tranche 3B of Eurofighter. The future of all other major projects must be re-examined as part of a strategic security and defence review, and in light of a more rigorous assessment of the possibilities for increased equipment co-operation with our European allies.
Washington is comfortable that EU defence co-operation is not a threat but an opportunity to improve NATO capabilities. The Conservatives, however, remain opposed. William Hague recently confirmed that his party is committed to pulling the UK out of the European Defence Agency; a move likely to infuriate Presidents Sarkozy and Obama.
The Conservatives fail to understand that so many of the forces affecting the security and prosperity of British citizens are supranational in character - terrorism, crime, immigration, international finance, trade - and we will only succeed in meeting these challenges if our political and regulatory responses are supranational too. Few would dispute the enormous advantages of the single European market. Our task now is to replicate these economic successes in our external goals for the EU. It may still be too weak on the foreign policy stage, but it remains our best bet for a safe, prosperous and sustainable future.
Let us not forget that one of the greatest strategic advancements of recent times has been the quiet, unglamorous liberalisation of national economies in Central and Eastern Europe, coupled by the strengthening of their democratic political institutions. Equally, let us not forget that Europe has a huge role to play in the strategic challenges of the future. Iran is an important example. Europe has the opportunity to counter a future Iranian threat in a way that America simply cannot, and in a way that China and Russia are unlikely to. Again, it is economic leverage that Europe will have at its disposal. According to official figures the EU remains Tehran's largest commercial partner, with trade totalling $35 billion in 2008.
The implication for British politicians is this: if you have no Europe policy, you are ill equipped to face the challenges ahead. The Conservatives' withdrawal from the centre-right European People's Party in the European Parliament makes clear that they will be isolated in Europe. A returned Labour government will retain its policy of ambivalence. And it can only be assumed that both of the other parties would continue the policy of default, and often submissive, Atlanticism. The Liberal Democrats seek a different approach. Our vision is of a self-confident Britain in a more effective Europe, ready to play its part in creating a world that is more peaceful and more prosperous.
These leader statements appear in the April 2010 issue of the RUSI Journal.