In a private meeting with British MEPs on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Britain Louis Susman is reported to have said: “Washington wants a clearer British commitment to remain in the EU. … [A]ll key issues must run through Europe.” He was not expressing a personal preference. He was reiterating the administration’s policy. After all, it was the vice president who last May described Brussels as “the capital of the free world.” But this is not a policy that is likely to achieve results satisfactory to anyone.
I wrote my doctoral thesis on the first British application to the EEC in 1961 and, more broadly, on the European issue in British politics from 1956 to 1963, so I’ve had 10 painful years of slogging through thousands of pages of public and private documents on this subject. The reactions of the British people to the negotiations to enter the EEC in 1961 to 1963 are particularly relevant to the ambassador’s statement and the administration’s policy. Harold Macmillan’s government took these reactions so seriously that it carried out a secret survey of public opinion — surveying the public in this way was then a rather novel idea — to figure out if it was winning or losing, and why. (As it happened, it was losing,)
The survey found that opposition to joining the EEC centered, first, on loyalty to kith and kin in the Commonwealth. Second came the somewhat parochial concerns of the farmers, who were worried (and how wrong they turned out to be) that the Common Agricultural Policy wouldn’t ship enough money their way. Less significant than both of these sentiments, but still important, came the belief that Britain was only entering Europe because the U.S. had ordered it to do so and that the U.S. was collaborating with the EEC in an attack on British sovereignty. As a matter of fact, this was not fully true. The U.S. did strongly support British entry, but Macmillan wasn’t simply being ordered around. He had his own reasons for his policy. Indeed, he had so many reasons that it is almost impossible to answer the seeming simple question “Why did Britain apply for entry?”
The problem with the Obama administration’s policy — which has basically been the policy of most U.S. administrations since 1961, with the partial exception of the more Euroskeptic tenure of George W. Bush — is that it raises these concerns about American bullying all over again, and raises them in a uniquely unhelpful way. Let us suppose for a moment that you desire — as I do not — that Britain should remain in the EU. U.S. declarations to this effect do nothing to convince those skeptical of this policy, because they suggest that the U.S. is cooperating with the EU to destroy British sovereignty, which is precisely why the skeptics are opposed to EU membership in the first place. Americans who desire Britain to stay in will best achieve this aim by not talking about it.
On the other hand, if you favor British withdrawal, it is regrettably true that the ambassador’s statements will anger the Euroskeptics — who tend to be more pro-American — and damage the Special Relationship by suggesting that the Americans have more or less given up on the idea of Britain as a sovereign and self-governing partner. The result is not to encourage strong Anglo-American relations; it is to encourage weaker British relations with both Europe and the U.S. Paradoxically, again, Americans who believe Britain should leave the EU have little to gain from statements like the ambassador’s, no matter how much public uproar they cause in Britain.
I am tempted to say it’s amazing that the administration has come upon a policy in this realm that will not achieve good results for anyone, no matter what they believe. But, as events in other parts of the world are illustrating, they seem to have a positive knack for this kind of thing.