Well, he may have ignored it for months, but now it’s finally taking shape – although it hardly seems to be overly well thought-out.
So, was Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s choice of Bruges to deliver his first EU policy speech symbolic? It is, after all, the scene of the moment when Maggie Thatcher allowed her (entirely understandable) irritation with the then EEC to bubble over into hyperbole and hysteria back in 1988, inspiring the formation of the staunchly anti-EU thinktank the Bruges Group in the process.
Well, considering Miliband quoted the Iron Lady at length in a subsection to his speech headed “Twenty Years on from the Bruges Speech”, you can be certain that he was at least aware of the potential symbolism. But how different is his language, his approach?
Well, it looks like Milibrand – following Brown the other day – is rather playing down the often overly excitable language about just what it is that the EU can hope to achieve:
“The EU is not and never will be a superpower. An EU of 27 nation states or more is never going to have the fleetness of foot or the fiscal base to dominate. In fact economically and demographically Europe will be less important in the world of 2050 that it was in the world of 1950.”
It all sounds rather pessimistic, doesn’t it? Plus it is swiftly followed up by an attempt at limitation not seen since Thatcher’s days: all the EU should be, according to this Miliband/Brown approach, is a model “for regional cooperation between medium-sized and small countries”.
But, of course, that’s not what the EU is. It’s rather more than a simple facilitator of regional cooperation, rather less than a state.
But here comes the point of real interest. Is the Brown/Miliband “regional cooperation” vision of the EU a multi-tier one? It would appear so:
“we must keep the door open, retaining the incentive for change that the prospect of membership provides.
“…Not all countries will be eligible for full membership, or show the will to join. So we should take the European Neighbourhood Policy a step further. We must state clearly that participation is not an alternative to membership, or a waiting room. And we must offer access to the full benefits of the single market…
“The first step would be the accession of neighbouring countries â€“ especially Russia and the Ukraine – to the WTO. Then we must build on this with comprehensive free-trade agreements. The goal must be a multilateral free-trade zone around our periphery â€“ a version of the European Free Trade Association that could gradually bring the countries of the Mahgreb, the Middle-East and Eastern Europe in line with the single-market, not as an alternative to membership, but potentially as a step towards it.”
If this all sounds strangely familiar – if not in the detail then in the general argument – then it’s because this is exactly the same approach Britain has had to Europe for the last four decades. A trading bloc, regional cooperation.
But wait, what’s this?:
“a model power should champion international law and human rights not just internally, but externally too. We need to live by our values and principles beyond our borders, not just within them.”
Does this sound familiar? Well, it should. See Gordon Brown’s speech the other day:
“the timeless values that underpin our policies at home… are also ideals that I believe that it is in our national interest to promote abroad.”
But where Miliband seems to be hinting at European military cooperation as the next logical step to tackle current security challenges, according to the Times he was forced to remove this, and other potentially controversial elements from his speech:
“David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, was humiliated by the Prime Minister yesterday when he was forced to remove pro-European passages from a speech and drop his policy initiative on European defence.”
As the Times notes, in dropping these sections, Britain has been pushed away from Sarkozy. What could have become a long-needed point of unity between Britain and France has instead become a point of further division – and seemingly entirely on Brown’s initiative. And make no mistake, Sarkozy will not have missed this proverbial slap in the face, as the start of Miliband’s speech makes it explicit:
“President Sarkozy has suggested we need a Groupe des Sages to focus on the Europe of 2030. Today I want to enter that debate”
This followed almost immediately by a critique of Sarkozy’s proposals from the other day:
“Protectionism seeks to stave off globalisation rather than manage it”
It’s looking rather like the old Gallic vs Anglo-Saxon foreign policy split is still alive and well.
Is this part of the “new diplomacy” being promised by the Foreign Office since Miliband took over? Choosing locations guaranteed to raise spectres of past confrontations to get everyone in Brussels suspicious from the get-go after months of barely looking in the direction of the Continent, and with Gordon Brown still seemingly utterly uninterested in the whole concept of the EU? Setting up stall in seemingly explicit opposition to the most secure politician on the continent, furthering the Anglo-French divide that has blighted all efforts at serious EU reform (most importantly of the Common Agricultural Policy) for decades?
This doesn’t strike me as a new approach at all. The choice of Bruges for Miliband’s speech was perfect – for it demonstrates that Brown’s EU policy is going to be exactly the same as that of every other British Prime Minister since Heath lost office: try to pretend it isn’t there as much as you can, then spout vague platitudes about free trade, irritate the French, then bugger off again.
Yep, when it comes to the EU, under Brown it seems to be business as usual. Yet another reason for paying no attention to anything Brown and co say on the matter.
The Guardian: Britain scorns France’s plans for EU defence
The International Herald Tribune: Britain says EU can never aspire to become superstate, power to rival US, China
The Telegraph: Miliband: EU ‘must tackle global conflicts’
The Independent: Miliband: EU must be a model power, not a superstate
The Times: Resonant address slips into trap of delusion
Civitas Blog: â€˜Outieâ€™ or â€˜Innieâ€™? The EU belly button
Open Europe Blog: Miliband at Bruges
Curly’s Corner Shop: Is Milibandâ€™s â€œvisionâ€ out of step
The Midnight Sun (oddly seeming to think that David Miliband is somehow an EU spokesman): E.U.: LOOK OUT, WORLD, WEâ€™RE COMING FOR YOU
Update – yet more:
The Economist’s Certain Ideas of Europe:
The BBC’s Mark Mardell: Miliband’s ad lib
The Bruges Group: Miliband’s ‘Bruges’ Speech: Rebutted
EU Referendum: Creative tension?
Global Power Europe: David Miliband says ‘no’ to a European superpower
The responses have, shall we say, not been positive thus far – either from the pro- or the anti-EU camps. In fact, the only people with nice things to say seem to be – surprise, surprise – over at Labour Home (and even that smacks of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”…)