A sovereign foreign policy

Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac did not agree over Iraq

An otherwise sensible article by Neil Clark is ruined by his souverainist obsession cropping up again. Neil Clark doesn’t like the EU, and so anything else he doesn’t like will be blamed on the EU if he can possibly manage it. Sometimes that’s fair, often it’s not. His article about Switzerland and Israel is an example of the latter.

The story is that the Swiss government has voiced criticism of Israeli policy towards settlements on the West Bank. (You can read the story here.) Neil Clark chooses to add to his article the statement that:

“Switzerland’s independent line on Middle East issues also shows the advantage of maintaining national sovereignty in an age where most countries in Europe have surrendered important decision making powers to the EU. While other countries in Europe have been cajoled, under US and British influence, to moderate their criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and to agree to swingeing sanctions on Iran – non-EU Switzerland is free to make its own decisions and to say what it thinks about Israeli actions.”

This argument goes wrong because the member states of the EU have not given up the ability to make their own foreign policies. The treaties spell out rules for how the EU makes a common foreign policy – unanimity for the policies themselves, majority voting for the implementation (and the Lisbon treaty does not change this) – and member states are free to pursue their own foreign policies in addition to this. They are supposed to consult with each other when making their own foreign policy decisions, but they may still pursue their own policies if they wish. Important decision-making powers have not been surrendered.

Think about the Iraq war. EU member states were on both sides of the argument. If Neil Clark is correct, either one side or the other must have surrendered the right to follow its preferred policy: in fact, neither had.

Neil Clark’s mention of the US gives the game away. Most people are aware that the United States is not a member of the European Union. The influence of America is entirely separate. The fact is that the Americans have been exercising a lot of influence in Europe and many European countries have accepted it. It’s a choice each country has made for itself. Neil Clark doesn’t like that choice – he is free not to – but it’s not a matter of EU membership.

There is a further point, though, which is about the effectiveness of sovereign foreign policies. It is one thing to express opinions for one’s own benefit: it is another thing for them to matter to anyone else. The difference between these two notions is the reason for European foreign policy itself. Lots of small European countries can ventilate their consciences as much as they wish, and it might make their more concerned citizens feel better, but there is no obligation on the rest of the world to take notice. Put all those European voices together, though, and maybe there is some chance of being heard.

The right to speak does not confer on others the duty to listen. Misunderstanding this is a common mistake. Understanding this is a characteristic of federalists in Europe.

A recent edition of the Economist fell into the same trap, asserting that:

“Such federalist proposals are intellectually coherent—and politically doomed. There is no European demos and, across 27 member-states, there will never be. For example, centre-right parties in France are far warier of free trade than the Swedish centre-left. When it comes to views of America or Russia, mainstream voters in Greece or Cyprus have little in common with mainstream voters in Poland or Britain.”

But it’s not simply the view held by mainstream voters in any European country that counts: it’s the reaction of foreign countries to those views that matters. And it is hard to discern much reaction on the part of America or Russia to the views of the Cypriot electorate. However, if you put Europe together as a whole, then you might have a force on the world stage to be treated with respect. It’s not an easy argument to put – hence the Economist’s “doomed” comment – but that doesn’t make it less true or less relevant.

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