Note to self: don’t fear the anglosphere

Paul Wells on the diplomacy of embassy sharing


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.


Note to self: don’t fear the anglosphere

  1. If i’m following correctly the super embassy thing was UK Conservative [even Hague approved?] domestic spin and a bone for the Euro skeptics, which Hague and Baird had to rein in yesterday? [ oh dear i wonder if i can get those couple of links back i took from your twitter feed?] Luckily my party doesn’t register on the political scene much at the moment, no harm done.
    Oh god you mean Baird is right. It’s just a tempest in a tea pot? Thank goodness it’s only the NDP with egg all over its face…and various nameless diplomats and various nameless pundits i admire[ Saunders?? Although i think he was smart enough to qualify/hedge his criticism on monday]…and half the Canadian press corp…oh well, that’s life. Even Baird can’t be wrong all the time.
    Good catch PW – i still half hope you’re wrong.

    • It is Libs and other left wing types who got their knickers in a twist about Canadian sovereignty when Canada does something with UK but are then reassured by French guy that embassy deal is acceptable because the Europeans do it as well.

      • It was only libs and left wing types eh! As usual i can’t even get beyond your initial premise.Trust you to more or less imply that “libs and other left wing types” might be racist toward Brits[ i am a Brit clown].Of course we should take the fact that others do it too as being reassuring. It’s just in this case a respected journalist did some digging and maybe i don’t just have to take the word of a govt and a minister that i don’t trust, and a FM who may have a conflict of interest. Whether everyone else will be reassured i can’t say.

  2. One of the interesting things about this is just how touchy many of us [Canadians] are about the perception of our independence being called into question. Oddly many of the same people seem to have a lot less empathy for Quebecois being so touchy, even neurotic about being an Island of French in a sea of Anglo/Americans. Anais Nin was right, we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.

    • Are Canadians being touchy? Or are the NDP and the Liberals being touchy for them?

      If the government says that 2+2=4, the opposition will try to find some way to disagree.

      • I don’t know, i haven’t polled them, or asked their political affliation ,have you?
        For some reason i reach for my calculator if this govt says 2+2 = 4.

  3. European countries and EU bureaucrats are having discussions to create next round of integration of European economies and Brits are getting twitchy. Sometime in the next 18 months or two years, EU is expected to have new proposals on closer integration of European countries and UK is not likely to join up. I figure Hague or Foreign Office are looking at new alternatives to EU network of embassies.

    Anglosphere countries coordinate their policy quite a bit. One part of my job is reading newspaper around the world and collecting business info and I have noticed Anglo countries do a lot of business with one another, pols from different countries know each other, bureaucrats have meetings with their colleagues from other countries.

    It would not surprise me if Brits are thinking about future and it is not with Europe – why should Brits be excited by leading EU defence when it is dying industry on a bankrupt continent? A bunch of European countries can’t even pay for basic medicines for their people at the moment and Brits are supposed to enthused about glories of eu military spending.

    Also, Daily Mail is awesome paper. Canadian press is staid, UK press provide info people actually enjoy reading.

    • The United Kingdom isn’t part of that bankrupt continent? Also, Greece is not Germany; Europe _is_ a diverse continent, after all.

  4. And Baird The Buffoon has again managed to do damage to Canada, because we are the only ones hurt by this. It does no harm to England, and certainly not to Europe.

    Add ‘reviving our brand’ to the long and still growing list of things needing to be fixed and restored when Harper is gone.

  5. Harper pokes his finger in Pauline Marios’ eye; see you and your fellow french folks don’t mean a damn thing to me!

  6. One diplomat told me it’s hard to carry these projects to completion

    Very good point. With no clear “boss”, just a bunch of equal partners, I’m sure it can be hard to make decisions when there is disagreement. And for sure it would be difficult to impossible politically to appoint one of the partners as “boss” for any length of time.