The U.S. blogger Matthew Yglesias often reminds his audience that there is no particular need to believe anything one reads in a U.K. newspaper. Even when there’s truth in a story, it comes encrusted with so much supposition and topspin it is hard to take the right measure of a story. (You may say we are the same. I plead no contest.) I should have reminded myself of this when the Mail announced William Hague’s plan to launch a worldwide network of commonwealth embassies to tackle “superpower” EU.
The story’s distinguishing characteristics included quotes from Hague that said nothing about the sharing of resources; and truly excellent quotes from a nameless “one British diplomat,” who saw this as revenge for the Blitz: “The EU is so burdened by history it doesn’t know what it wants to do and is hopeless at speaking with one voice. We Brits know who we are, who our real friends are, and between us we have been a rather good influence on the world in the past century.”
The story was picked up immediately at Conservativehome, a group blog dedicated to holding the hands of Conservative supporters as their party is buffeted in the polls. (There are similar sites for every party.) “Eurosceptics don’t always have cause to celebrate,” the writer notes mournfully, mentioning (this seems significant — ed.) a titanic merger of British and French aerospace defence contractors that could be worth tens of billions of euros. That’s the sort of real, consequential story Brits who are skeptical of the EU would really want to be distracted from with a handy bit of pixie dust. And here comes one now! “William Hague has good – exciting – news for those who despair,” the writer said, before launching into the anglosphere super-embassy yarn. This will “seek to head off the creeping influence of European Union diplomats,” the blogger said. Loooook. Shiny object.
Fast forward to Monday, when Hague and John Baird spent the afternoon lamenting all the wild speculation Hague’s faceless diplomat and the PR arm of his struggling party had spent the weekend working hard to whip up. Hague by now had slept on it and was eager to realign his project with the real world. “I’ve seen it written up a bit too excitedly in some places,” he told Peter Mansbridge. “What is doesn’t mean is that these countries are not having their own foreign policies or sharing ambassadors, it’s nothing like that.”
There’s been less chatter in the Mail and at Conservativehome since Hague explained his project than there was beforehand, when it was possible to depict this as a Europe-killing expedition. To be on the safe side, I put out a couple of calls to European embassies in Ottawa, and I can report to you that the continentals are not the least bit upset that Canada and the UK are playing administrative footsie. Turns out it’s a sport the Europeans engage in sometimes,with one another and with third parties. One diplomat told me it’s hard to carry these projects to completion — “We have seen a lot more engagements along these lines than we have seen marriages” — but that the appeal of the notion is such that somebody is always attempting it.
Philippe Zeller, France’s softspoken ambassador, called to chat about the many French-German joint diplomatic missions, of varying sizes and geometries, in such places as Bangladesh, Kuwait and Mozambique. In Kazakhstan, he said, there is a three-country joint mission: France, Germany and (don’t tell the Mail) the UK share space and resources. France also has shared representation with non-EU countries including Switzerland at times.
“In the world of diplomats, these are accords such as we’ve practiced before,” Zeller said. “They do not surprise us.”
The pre-release sales job for the office-sharing arrangement can be chalked up to domestic UK politics. Hague’s party is more or less eternally divided over Euro membership. When he ran, quite unsuccessfully, to defeat Tony Blair in 2001, he bet big on a euroskeptic message, warning that this was the “last chance to save the pound.” (Spoiler: no it wasn’t.) Today the Cameron government is being pulled in two directions, away from Europe by part of its voter base and into it by its European partners. Radek Sikorski, the influential Oxford-educated Polish foreign minister, dropped by his old stomping ground the other day to bluntly warn the UK against backing out of European integration. “You could, if only you wished, lead Europe’s defence policy,” he said. “But if you refuse, please don’t expect us to help you wreck or paralyse the EU… Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century.”
Even now, even after 2008-09 and Greece and the rest, Britain has massive interests in Europe. The EADS-BAE merger is evidence of that. But not everyone in the Cameron Tories is happy about that, and every once in a while the party leadership has to throw them a bone, and this week the bone was Canada.