British European Membership in America’s Interest?

The United States should rather have the continent divided than united against it.

Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

A member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet urged the United Kingdom last week not to withdraw from the European Union, arguing that it “is in America’s interests” for Britain to be a member of the bloc. “We welcome an outward looking EU with Britain in it,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon.

Gordon said he fretted about a possible British referendum about membership, arguing that such votes “have often turned countries inward.” He added, “The more the EU reflects on its internal debate the less it is able to be unified.”

American obsession with Europe’s political integration is hardly new. Indeed, it dates back to immediately after World War II when the United States encouraged and facilitates the process. A united Europe would prevent war and thus the need for American intervention and be a strong enough bloc to resist Soviet expansion.

Nowadays, American support for closer European union seems to stem more from a frustration with the continent’s perennial inability to formulate single policy than a calculated assessment of its national interests.

“Every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth and international peace around the world,” said Gordon — not only in a sign of impatience but ignorance for the institutional makeup of the union is critical if Europe, internally and with other powers, is to address the challenges that he mentioned.

Unsurprisingly, Gordon’s British audience didn’t take too kindly to his advice. Conservative lawmaker Peter Bone suggested that the secretary should “butt out” since the issue of membership had “nothing to do with the Americans.”

Nigel Farage, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, earlier reminded Barack Obama that “while he’s been elected president, he’s been elected president of the United States only” when he pushed for Turkish membership, something most Western European countries at present oppose.

British engagement in Europe may be in America’s interest to the extent that it balances the anti-Americanism of other member states, particularly in the European Parliament where every measure that defies the United States can count on broad support. But it would simultaneously erode the United Kingdom’s ability to act as a true ally.

If there is deeper defense and foreign policy cooperation in Europe, the major continental powers — France, Germany, Italy, Poland — would have a far greater say in it than Britain. Of those, only Poland can be considered a reliable American partner whatever the circumstances. France and Germany by contrast, for different reasons, are usually less willing to wholeheartedly back American policy. The former especially would like to make a united Europe an instrument of its own international ambitions. While as long as it has to cope with more than two dozen national interests and opinions, it may be more inclined to work with the United States directly than go through Brussels. The Germans are altogether less internationalist.

While there is no European security policy, the United States can exploit differences among member states and always find coalitions of the willing. Better to have the continent divided and be able to scramble for such support than find none at all when Europe is united.