Currently, David Cameron is the new face on the diplomatic stage in Europe – at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at the European Council Summits in Brussels, at the Security Conference in Munich. If the coalition government plays an active role on the European stage, who are its partners? The analysis of a summit that took place in London in late January, called “UK-Nordic-Baltic”, reveals that British foreign policy has developed a new strategic priority: Northern Europe.
Differentiated integration among the participating countries
On 19 and 20 January 2011, the UK-Nordic-Baltic summit brought together Prime Ministers, policy innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and the UK “to discuss how best to boost economic growth, enterprise and job creation while improving people’s well being” (Number10.gov.uk). The nine participating countries stand for a continuum on the line between minimum and maximum integration: Norway is only part of the European Economic Area (as all nine countries), Iceland is negotiating its accession to the EU and the other seven of them are EU-members. Finland and – since January 2011 – Estonia are the only two members with maximum integration as they adopted the Euro as their currency. All together, the countries stand for the whole variation in European integration.
Most importantly, the Nordic and Baltic countries are ideologically close to Britain at the moment, as most of them have centre-right governments. And their centre-rights parties share many values with the British Conservatives – apparently Swedish Prime Minister Frank Reinfeldt was disappointed when the Tories left the European People’s Party Group (EPP) in the European Parliament to form the European Conservative and Reformists Group (ECR).
Exchanging ideas and building a network
The Nordic and Baltic countries are important trade partners for the British economy (£54 billion a year), equivalent to UK trade with China. The purpose of the meeting was, however, more than just improving trade relations: David Cameron sees Scandinavian countries as an example for Britain. According to him, “this meeting brought together people and ideas from nine countries that face common challenges. We came together in London to listen and to learn and to capture ideas, the kind of ideas that can make our societies better places for our citizens to live in.” (UK Nordic Baltic Summit Website)
Indeed, the summit looks like a revolution in summit diplomacy: when the six and later seven Western industrial nations first met in the 1970s in what was to become the G8, initiated by the French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, informality was the key feature of their meetings. This has been lost, but Cameron seems to try a regional re-invention of this concept for Northern Europe: circumventing a common declaration and individual press conferences after the summit are crucial steps to bring back informal modes of governance, to decrease expectations on these summits and to make them more productive.
What does it mean for Europe?
David Cameron sees Britain as a “hub nation in a world of networks”, as The Economist put it. The nine countries are cautious towards Russia, they like free trade, they want to be more competitive and they are at the forefront in technological innovation. They prefer budget discipline in the EU and strong ties to the United States within the framework of NATO. The summit can also be interpreted as a British power play – an attempt to create a “northern league” of often Eurosceptic, Atlanticist countries that share a desire to rein in the power of Brussels and EU spending (Financial Times). The Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb was quoted in The Financial Times describing that the summit was “a smart move” by David Cameron. “He’s looking for allies in the EU. Small member states are always flattered when approached by big member states.”
While Gordon Brown was often disinterested in Europe, David Cameron seems to be willing to shape Europe. This might, however, not always be a move in the same direction as France and Germany, the so-called “engine” of the EU that re-gained some momentum with the “Pact for Competitiveness” presented at the European Council in early February.
Divide and rule in Europe ?
Strengthening the multilateral ties with Nordic and Baltic countries clearly fits into the overall EU strategy of the coalition government that came to office in May 2010. The Franco-British defence agreement and the EU Bill (both discussed by NE-UK) have been other important cornerstones. If repeated or even institutionalised, informal summits of Northern European countries could have an important impact on the agenda of the EU. Their positions could complement (or compete with?) those of the Weimar Triangle by France, Germany and Poland. This need not lead to a fractionalisation of Europe, but could actually be beneficial for European integration – after all there are other informal summits, like the Visegrad group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The Northern Summit then appears as another sub-group in a union that gradually moves towards multi-speed integration.
In any case, the British government has tested a new approach and tries to establish closer relations with its Nordic and Baltic partners. Is the UK trying to divide and rule in Europe? Let’s adopt an optimistic view, and assume that getting closer to the Northern countries shows Britain’s readiness to exert influence, become more involved in Europe and thus find a way between Euroscepticism and Europragmatism.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
- A new British attitude towards Europe?
- The EU bill: the victory of euroscepticism in British politics?
- A Second St Malo for European defence?
On the Internet
- Financial Times, 20/01/11, 'UK-Nordic summit aims to forge free-market ties'
- Foreign and Commonwealth Office: 'UK Nordic Baltic Summit brings together politicians, policymakers and entrepreneurs'
- Number10.gov.uk: 'PM hosts Nordic Baltic Summit in London'
- The Economist, 27/01/11: 'Nice up north. Why David Cameron is fascinated by Sweden and its neighbours'
- UK Nordic Baltic Summit Website
Source : PM at UK Nordic Baltic Summit, by The Prime Minister's Office, on flickr