The new British bulldog?

The man widely tipped to be Britain's next prime minister, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, presented his political manifesto in a major speech this week. But the potential return of the Conservatives will spark concern among some European leaders.

David Cameron, leader of the United Kingdom's Conservative Party, presented his party’s political manifesto Thursday in an hour-long speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. The speech foreshadowed deep economic pain that the UK will likely experience in the coming years due to its swelling budget deficit and debt. The Conservative Party’s potential return to power in Britain – and the context of the economic crisis – bring back memories of another Conservative leader who emphasized the UK’s role in global affairs and the failings of so-called big government: Margaret Thatcher.

The idea of a Cameron-led UK in 2010 gives STRATFOR a chance to look at how a conservative United Kingdom would affect the European geopolitical landscape.

Britain is blessed with an enviable geopolitical location; while most European states have to deal with proximate rivals, London has the English Channel that separates it from the Continent. However, the United Kingdom’s proximity to Europe means that it cannot stand aloof of Continental entanglements. The Channel is a formidable but not insurmountable barrier, particularly not for an organized and well-supplied force. London therefore needs to remain vigilant of European affairs lest a European state, or coalition of states, gathers enough power to mobilize the Continent’s resources and threaten Britain’s economic, political – and often throughout history – military interests.

The instructive example for all British rulers is the attempted invasion of the British Isles in 1588 by the Habsburg monarch Phillip II of Spain, who led what was in many ways the first truly pan-European effort to subjugate Britain. Subsequent "unification efforts” of the European Continent by Napoleon and Hitler similarly involved plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom once Europe was united under single political entity.

The European Union is at its very core just another in a long line of such European unification efforts, but instead of Napoleon’s divisional artillery or Hitler’s Panzer units it uses EU Commission regulation and directives to force open national barriers to commerce and communication.

Britain’s geography – an island nation surrounded by some of the more treacherous seas in Europe – has throughout history given the country an advantage in naval expansion. Being separated from the Continent has allowed Britain to invest its resources and energy in maritime capabilities that have led to the development of its naval power. As such, London used its navy to build a global empire, allowing it to move beyond territorial and economic expansion solely focused on the European continent. But these global interests, developed over centuries of trade and empire building across the globe, often clash with EU’s intent to unify Europe politically and economically. Therefore, even though most states that make up the EU today are expected to want to further their own global interests, the UK stands apart because its historical separation and emphasis on empire-building. This means that its national interests are likely to diverge more frequently from the collective interests of the continental states.

Former French President Charles de Gaulle famously refused to grant Britain membership into the EU precisely because he felt, not incorrectly, that London would work to further its own global interests – including cultivating its close alliance with the United States – instead of putting a strong Europe first. De Gaulle was particularly irked by the fact that the UK, under intense pressure from the United States, abandoned French and Israeli forces during the Suez Crisis in 1956. To him, that was proof that London puts its relationship with the United States at a higher priority than its alliance with France. When the UK finally did join the EU in 1973, it was forced to give up most of its trade privileges with the British-led Commonwealth. And most recently, during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, relations with Europe were strained because of UK support of the US foreign policy.

These tensions between the EU and UK have manifested themselves traditionally in two political strategies on the British political scene. The dominant UK political forces, the Labour and Conservative parties, both share a complete rejection of isolationism from the EU as unrealistic. Europe is too close and too large to be simply ignored. However, Labour – and particularly former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s "New Labour” – believes that through engagement London can influence the EU’s development and the direction its policies ultimately take. It is not necessarily opposed to a European political union, as long as London has a prominent seat at the table of such a union and is not isolated as it was during de Gaulle’s era.

Meanwhile, the Conservative strategy toward Europe – symbolized by the premiership of Margaret Thatcher — also looks to engage Europe, but so it can control or even reverse Europe’s unification. For the Conservative Party, the EU’s emphasis on the free movement of goods, capital and people is largely a net benefit as it removes government-imposed trade barriers on the free market, which gives the UK’s rather laissez-faire economy a marked advantage in many fields.
Furthermore, because the Conservative Party rejects "big government” at home, it does not want to see Britain’s big government replaced by Brussels. The Conservative party rejects the idea that the UK will ever be allowed to lead Europe in any capacity – they believe that the Labour Party is deluded in thinking that Europe can be made to work for Britain – and that it is therefore unwise to support a powerful Europe, as it is unclear where such a project could lead. Or more to the point from a Tory perspective, it is all too clear where such a project could lead: in a direction that would diverge with the UK’s rather global interests.

As such, a return of the Conservative Party in the UK would see Britain again become active in EU policies, but in a way that the Continent – particularly France and Germany – will not appreciate.

Thatcher, for example, butted heads with France repeatedly on the issue of Europe’s future. While the Labour government under Blair and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown has largely supported policies that strengthen the EU's ability to govern as a coherent political union, Cameron’s Conservatives will look to decrease any political coherence in Europe and to return the EU to a state of a glorified trade union.

The only difference between Thatcherite Europe and the Europe that Cameron will face is that in the 1980s Thatcher did not have strong France and Germany to contend with, whereas Cameron will. Thatcher also used her national veto to great effect, but with the Lisbon Treaty likely to shift more policy areas away from unanimity and towards simplified decision making Cameron will not have that option – forcing him to become more creative. It will therefore be worth observing what Paris and Berlin’s reactions will be to London’s challenge to a strengthened Europe.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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